James J. O’Donnell on The War for Gaul

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Why did you want to translate Caesar? 

Caesar’s War on Gaul is the very best book ever written by a truly bad man who sets out to tell us with absolutely no remorse just how bad he’s been.  So first we get the cognitive dissonance of this utterly self-assured voice telling us horrible things.  (Best estimate is that about a million people died in that war, a war that didn’t need to happen.)  But it’s also just a great book— a gripping yarn with thrills, chills, and adventure, written in a taut, vivid style.  Hemingway only wished he could write this way.  So I wanted to see how I could capture both the atrocity and the elegance at the same time.  

Is there anything else like Caesar in our “canons” of literature?  

I can’t think of anything—perhaps the steamy epistolary fiction of Dangerous Liaisons, that needed Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer to cast the film.  No room for women in Caesar’s cast, but there’s got to be a part for John Malkovich in here somewhere—and maybe Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel and John Goodman.  When Hollywood calls, I’m ready to pitch a great movie!

Your translation comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story.  How do those work?

If you just read Caesar’s words, you get a story of soldiers marching around clobbering people.  Really good soldiers, clobbering a lot of people with plenty of panache, no question.  But what was really going on?  Caesar spent those nine years up in Gaul because he was a politician on the make.  He needed to be a great conqueror, he needed people to know he was a great conqueror—so he wrote the book.  But he also needed money, lots and lots of money, so plundering and enslaving masses of people were big on his mind—but he plays that side of things down.  And he also needed to stay in touch with politics back in Rome and needed the reports of what he was doing to land in Rome just when he needed them to spin his narrative and to keep his name and fame alive.  My introductions and notes tell you all the things Caesar didn’t tell you but that everybody around him and everybody back at Rome knew.  What was he really up to?  I spill the beans.

So what’s in it for you?  Most people don’t think of translating Latin as a job they’d want!

Different strokes for different folks.  From some time in college, I’ve just known that reading Latin makes my head feel good in ways I can’t describe.  If you see me in the window seat of a plane muttering to myself, I’m probably subvocalizing whatever Latin book I have with me, just because it feels so good to do that.  And Caesar has been one of the half dozen or so Latin books that have always done that for me the best.

Ah, so what other Latin writers do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

It’s a very mixed bag.  Nobody in the ancient world hated Caesar so much as the poet Lucan a hundred years later, who wrote an astonishingly gory epic about Caesar’s civil war, then committed suicide when he got caught in a plot against Nero.  It’s a real leap from there to Augustine’s Confessions or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but in ways I can’t really explain those books always work for me as well, over and over again for decades.  They work the way the last page of Joyce’s “The Dead” can work—still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Some books are just magical for some readers and we should cherish that.  If I can make Caesar a little big magical for readers of this book, I’m happy.

So, which book would you most like to have written yourself?  Caesar’s?

No!  I’m actually a nice guy.  And I wouldn’t last a week in Caesar’s army.  A book I go back to over and over is called Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidad-born cricket journalist, professional rabble-rouser, and historian C.L.R. James, who died at great age in 1989.  He was an Afro-Trinidadian brought up to be a citizen of the British empire, acutely aware of both his British-ness by virtue of his culture and education and of his exclusion from British-ness by virtue of his race and colonial subjection.  So he wrote a book about the ultimate imperialist game, cricket — and it was a combination of memoir, social history, love song (for his love of cricket in spite of everything), and literary triumph.  Think of a skinny little black kid growing up in Trinidad before the first world war, dividing his time passionately between the English game and the Englishman’s literature.  Vanity Fair was the book he read over and over and over again, the way I remember reading Life on the Mississippi in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Anyway, it’s a book that brings together things intensely personal for him, but in a way that opens up the whole set of cultures he grew up and lived in and leaves the reader thinking about the paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion, of loyalty and exclusion.  He’s somebody able to love the past and cherish an inheritance and at the same time give himself fiercely to the struggle to transcend that past for a more just and inclusive way of seeing and living.  That one makes my head feel pretty good too.

James J. O’Donnell is professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University. His books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biogr

Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

Francesca Trivellato on The Promise and Peril of Credit

The Promise and Peril of Credit takes an incisive look at pivotal episodes in the West’s centuries-long struggle to define the place of private finance in the social and political order. It does so through the lens of a persistent legend about Jews and money that reflected the anxieties surrounding the rise of impersonal credit markets.

What are the promises and the perils of credit?

This is a book about the distant past, but to understand its import, we may think about the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the foreclosure crisis, a few radical voices called for an end to capitalism. But most people, in one way or another, demanded a fairer capitalism in which Main Street gains as much as Wall Street, and in which ever more intricate financial instruments provide for all and not just for savvy and well-connected insiders. The problem is that we cannot agree on what constitutes fair capitalism. Variations of this ideological and regulatory struggle have existed in Europe since the year 1000, when the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages set in motion the first sustained period of demographic and economic expansion on the continent after the fall of the Roman empire. The more people participated in market exchanges, the more difficult it became to distinguish reliable from bad borrowers, trustworthy from shady bankers.

What is the legend that the books uncovers?

The legend tells the story of Jews fleeing the kingdom of France sometime between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries who invented marine insurance and bills of exchange in order to salvage whatever they could of their assets. The legend is false: Jews did not invent marine insurance and bills of exchange, though they were chased from France multiple times during the Middle Ages and every expulsion was accompanied by confiscation of goods. The first rendition of the legend appeared in print in 1647 in a collection of maritime laws.

What are bills of exchange?

Marine insurance at the time worked in the same way as modern insurance works, but bills of exchange are no longer in use. They were at once a credit instrument and a way of transmitting money abroad in a foreign currency. Picture MoneyGram meets a personal check. Materially, they were slips of papers even smaller than a modern check, scribbled in code (details can be gleaned on the book cover). Bills of exchange allowed merchants to transfer funds rather than risk the theft or the loss at sea of their silver coins. In the hands of the most experienced merchants, they were used to conduct complex speculative financial transactions that were entirely divorced from the purchase and sale of material goods. Bills of exchange symbolized all that was abstract, intangible, arcane, helpful but also potentially dangerous in the growing credit economy of early modern Europe. They were the derivatives of their time.

Why should we care about the legend that attributed to medieval Jews the invention of bills of exchange?

Because it was a preferred way in which until a hundred years ago writers discussed a question that is central to the history of the West: how can we expand the number and range of people who enter the marketplace but control their good behavior? The impersonality of the market is both appealing and threatening. Before and after Adam Smith, the invisible hand was only one of the idealized solutions to the problem of oligopolies. Many writers resorted to Jewish usury as a metaphor to denounce the asymmetries of powers that plagued the market. In this they were assisted by stockpiles of anti-Jewish prejudice images. In its original formulation the legend I discuss adapts this arsenal of anti-Jewish sentiments to denounce the dark forces that could led good Christian borrowers to loose small and large fortunes. Jews were a universal symbol of financial malpractice, to attribute the invention of Europe’s key credit instruments to Jews did not mean that Christians could not put those instruments to good use, but it meant that marine insurance and bills of exchange were tainted by usury as their original sin.

If the legend is as important as you claim, why does no one knows about it?

There are several reasons the legend is forgotten. Bills of exchange have fallen out of use and we have ceased to wonder where they came from. Moreover, economic historians now tend to search for the origins of those financial institutions that have survived into the present, notably the stock market, which developed in 1600 but affected many fewer people than the hundred thousands who handled marine insurance and bills of exchange. There is also a tendency to assume that Jews, both real and imaginary, mattered to European economic thought only in the Middle Ages, before the emergence of a secular “science of commerce” emerged. This is simply not true. Religious language continued to inform most economic writing in the early modern period. To accuse a Christian merchant of being “Jewish” was a way of equating their behavior to that of Jews, who supposedly wished to rob Christians of their wealth.

How did Jews react to the circulation of this legend?

I wish I knew what Jews told each other about a story that some of them surely heard in one version or another. Some Jewish writers did engage with the legend in writing, especially in the nineteenth century. To my knowledge, the first to do so was the father of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had his children baptized, making his son’s political career possible. In some quarters, the legend was a source of Jewish pride and fed the genre known as Jewish-contributions-to-civilization by touting Jewish financial prowess. Other Jewish authors firmly rejected a legend that they saw as mobilizing insidious stereotypes.

Why don’t you ever mention Shylock in a book about Jews and credit?

Some historians have tried to pin down the sources of Shakespeare’s imagination by establishing whether one Jewish merchant or another living in the Venice ghetto in the 1590s may have served as a model for the great English writer. I regard such efforts as futile: literary imagination is not more or less compelling because it is based on identifiable facts. But if we want to judge one of the masterpieces of Renaissance theater by its empirical validity, then The Merchant of Venice would fail the test. The pound of flesh is only one of the dubious references in the play. Shylock would have lent money to Antonio by means of a bill of exchange. Only poor Christians had to deposit a pledge to borrow a small sum in the ghetto. A patrician like Antonio could borrow by using his reputation as collateral. After 1589, when international Jewish merchants hailing from Iberia found a safe haven in Venice, Antonio would have found Jewish merchants able and willing to issue him a bill of exchange. The figure of Shylock really tells us that the Jewish usurer, one of the most long-lasting figments of the Western imagination, was a protean symbol that encompassed stereotypes of both the parasitic Jewish poor and the rapacious Jewish capitalist.

Francesca Trivellato is professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is the author of The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period.

Browse our 2019 History Catalog

Our new History catalog includes a groundbreaking history of early America that shows how Boston built and sustained an independent city-state in New England before being folded into the United States, a reconstruction of the forgotten history of medieval Africa, and a major new history of how the Enlightenment transformed people’s everyday lives.

If you’re attending the American Historical Association meeting in Chicago this week, you can stop by Booth 207 to check out our history titles!

Peterson_City-State of Boston book cover

The City-State of Boston highlights Boston’s overlooked past as an autonomous city-state, and in doing so, offers a pathbreaking and brilliant new history of early America. Following Boston’s development over three centuries, Mark Peterson discusses how this self-governing Atlantic trading center began as a refuge from Britain’s Stuart monarchs and how—through its bargain with slavery and ratification of the Constitution—it would tragically lose integrity and autonomy as it became incorporated into the greater United States.

Fauvelle_Golden Rhinoceros book cover

The seventh through fifteenth centuries were an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa. Drawing on fragmented written sources as well as his many years of experience as an archaeologist, François-Xavier Fauvelle painstakingly reconstructs an African past that is too often denied its place in history—but no longer.

Jacobs_Secular Enlightenment

The Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Margaret Jacob, one of our most esteemed historians of the Enlightenment, reveals how this newly secular outlook was not a wholesale rejection of Christianity but rather a new mental space in which to encounter the world on its own terms. She demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

Green: Ten Facts You Didn’t Know about the Color Green

Pastoureau Green book coverGreen is the color of cash, and also of protecting the environment. A green light means go, but a green-tinged emoji means someone is about to be sick. Where did these cultural meanings come from, and how have they developed and shifted throughout history? Michel Pastoureau’s book Green: The History of a Color takes readers from ancient times to the present day, exploring the role of green in Western societies over thousands of years.

Green is just one title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the history of colors in European society! This National Color Day, don’t miss Red, Blueand Black.

How many of these facts about green did you know?

1. The ancient Egyptian god Ptah was depicted with a green face. In Egyptian painting, green was a beneficial color that protected against evil.

2. The Roman emperor Nero was known for eating a large amount of leeks he consumed, which was unusual for a high-ranking person at that time. Leeks were strongly associated with the color green, and even lent their name to one of the Greek words for the color, prasinos.

3. The Roman Empire’s chariot races featured two opposing stables: the Blues and the Greens. The Blues represented the Senate and the patrician class, while the Greens represented the people. Each stable was backed by a large, influential organization with a network of clientele and a lobby that extended far outside the racecourse.

4. The prophet Muhammad favored the color green. After becoming the dynastic color of the Fatimids, green came to be the sacred color of Islam as a whole.

5. During the Middle Ages, green was the color of hope for pregnant women in particular. Pregnant women in paintings were often shown wearing green dresses.

6. Possessing a green shield, tunic, or horse’s quarter sheet often meant that a knight was young and hotheaded. One well-known example of a “green knight” is found in the late fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

7. In Gothic stained-glass windows, green was the color of demons, sorcerers, dragons, and the Devil himself.

8. Dyeing in green was difficult during the Middle Ages. Green dyes from plants produced faint and unstable color that grew even more faded when mordant, or fixative, was applied. Because of this instability, green came to represent inconstancy, duplicity, and betrayal. Judas, for example, is often shown dressed in green.

9. Another obstacle to dyeing in green was the way the dyeing trades were organized. Professional dyers were licensed to dye only in certain colors. This made mixing colors—such as blue and yellow, which make green—next to impossible. Even dyers who broke the regulations and used both blue and yellow dyes had to possess the then-rare knowledge that blue and yellow combined make green. This combination may seem obvious to us now, but in pre-Newtonian color classifications, green was never located anywhere near yellow.

10. Schweinfurt green was a shade developed in Germany in 1814 and made from copper shavings dissolved in arsenic. It was used to make paint, dye, and painted paper. When exposed to humidity, the arsenic evaporates and can be toxic. According to some theories of Napoleon’s death, he was poisoned by his wallpaper.

William R. Newman: Newton the Scientist or Newton the Alchemist?

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Isaac Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived. How do we reconcile these two statements? After all, to most modern people, alchemy was at best a delusion and at worst an outright fraud. But Newton’s involvement in chrysopoeia, the alchemical attempt to transmute metals, is undeniable. Thanks to a famous 1936 auction of Newton’s papers, it is now an indisputable fact that the famous physicist wrote extensively on alchemy. Careful estimates indicate that he left about a million words on the subject, or possibly somewhat more.  Nor can one assert that this material stemmed from Newton’s old age, when he had ceased to be a productive scientist. To the contrary, his involvement in alchemy occupied the most productive period of his life, beginning in the 1660’s, when Newton’s innovations in mathematics and physics were still in their formative stages, and continuing up to the early eighteenth century when he published his famous Opticks.

What then are we to make of Newton’s alchemical quest, which extended over more than three decades? In the last third of the twentieth century, when the academic field of the history of science still held alchemy in low esteem, scholars were perplexed at his devotion to the aurific art. Two complementary theories emerged that attempted to explain Newton’s involvement in alchemy. The first built on the modern idea that alchemy was a type of magic, and that Renaissance magic focused on the hidden sympathies and antipathies between material things. The reason why a lodestone attracted iron at a distance was because of a hidden sympathy between the two.   Couldn’t this sort of explanation have stimulated Newton to think of gravity in terms of an immaterial attraction? And wasn’t alchemy based on the idea that some materials react with others because of a similar principle of affinity? Thus the idea that Newton’s involvement with alchemy was part of a quest to understand gravitational attraction was born. But closer inspection shows that this historical explanation has little or no justification. When Newton actually does speak about gravity and alchemy in the same breath, as in his manuscript Of Natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation, he explicitly proposes a mechanical explanation of gravity that does not involve immaterial attraction. There is no evidence that his concept of action at a distance emerged from his alchemical studies.

The second major attempt to explain Newton’s alchemy in the last generation stemmed from a consideration of two fields: religion and analytical psychology. The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung had been arguing since the early twentieth century that alchemy was really a matter of “psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language.” Moreover, Jung argued that the language of alchemy was remarkably similar to that of Gnosticism, a heterodox religious movement of the early Christian centuries that stressed the need for personal revelation (gnosis) and communication with God. The 1936 auction that revealed Newton’s alchemy to the world had also released millions of words in his hand that dealt with prophecy, biblical chronology, and the iniquity of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Newton was now understood to be a passionate Antitrinitarian and a deeply religious thinker.

Wasn’t it possible, then, that his alchemy was merely an outgrowth of his religion, and that he saw the philosophers’ stone in its role of perfecting metals as a material surrogate for Jesus, the savior of souls? After all, alchemists had long justified their art as a divine pursuit, which God would only allow to fall into the hands of the worthy. Like the argument about alchemy and gravitational attraction, however, the claim that Newton’s interest in alchemy sprang from his religiosity falls on hard times when one examines the evidence. In reality, Newton never develops the religiously tinted themes that his alchemical sources sometimes convey. When they speak of the Holy Trinity, for example, Newton ignores the obvious religious sense and immediately tries to decode the reference into the form of an alchemical recipe. And if one turns to the roughly four million words that he wrote on religious topics, the references to alchemy are vanishingly small. For Newton, alchemy and religion were independent domains, each to be treated separately.  

Why then did Newton believe in the aurific art, and what was the empirical basis of his generation-long alchemical quest? By examining the evidence upon which early modern alchemists based their beliefs, one can better appreciate Newton’s goals. In their world, minerals and metals came into being and then died beneath the surface of the earth, forming gigantic trees whose branches presented themselves as veins and stringers of ore. This idea seems less naïve when one considers mineral entities such as wire silver, which really does seem to mimic organic life.

In this world, nature seemed to delight in transmutations, as Newton himself would say in the final editions of his famous Opticks. A famous example lay in the blue mineral vitriol found in mines, which could rapidly “transmute” iron into copper by plating it. The continual sinking down and rising up of living, fertile, mineral fumes led Newton to his own early theory of subterranean generation and corruption. Basing himself on the old alchemical principle that art should mimic nature, Newton spent decades attempting to arrive at ever more volatile metal compounds, which he hoped would act as destructive agencies that could break metals into their primitive components and thereby release their hidden life. In my ongoing attempt to understand Newton’s goals and methods, I have replicated a number of his experiments in the Indiana University Chemistry Department. The results, even if they have not revealed the secret of the philosophers’ stone, can certainly help us to understand why Newton persisted in his quest for the philosophers’ stone over the greater part of his scientific career.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism as Seen by a Cartographer

Historical Atlas of Hasidism book coverby Waldemar Spallek

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism, its title notwithstanding, is not a typical historical atlas. It does not illustrate the past glory of any state or nation by means of historical maps showing former borders, conquests, trade routes, or the strategies of great battles. It presents, unusually, the birth, development, and current status of an extraordinary mystical religious movement. This movement, Hasidism, originated in the eighteenth century in the lands of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from whence it was almost entirely erased due to a series of historical events.

The Atlas is, in part, an attempt to recreate this lost world. The maps are complemented by numerous illustrations and tables as well as commentary, which is an excellent introduction to the content presented on the maps. Unlike typical atlases of the world’s great religions, the Historical Atlas of Hasidism does not focus on the non-religious history of religion. It pinpoints political limits and demographic centers, but it discloses above all the spatial dimension of a religious experience.

The maps in the atlas were designed in GIS, or Geographic Information System (ArcGIS from ESRI), due to the massive amount of spatial data sets that needed to be processed and visualized. The largest of the databases used contains almost 130,000 records obtained from difficult-to-access sources. The map created on the basis of this database (using Dorling’s cartograms) clearly shows where contemporary Hasidic centers are located, but it also reveals how the place where Hasidism originated became an area bereft of Hasidim.

The Atlas is unique also because the co-author, Marcin Wodziński, reached for the impossible. As a person without a cartography background, he posed questions that cartography does not generally deal with. In order to meet his expectations, we plotted maps that are innovative not only because of the size of the source database used and the questions asked, but also because of the new forms of cartographic visualization that we perforce had to develop.

In preparing the Atlas, I had to recreate the historical space of places that no longer exist, and information regarding their historical appearance is scant. I reconstructed, for example, visualizations of Hasidic courts and Jewish towns in Eastern Europe primarily on the basis of recollections by former residents. Unlike many historical atlases, our atlas does not use a single anachronistic background map.

What did we achieve?

Maps as spatial perspectives allowed us to embed Hasidic history in a geographical context. This in turn allowed us to illuminate and understand a great variety of events and processes from the past.

Map 4.2. Petitions submitted to R. Eliyahu Guttmacher, c. 1874. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

One such example is map 4.2, which illustrates the relationship between the number and distribution of requests sent to a given rabbi (the map was based on an extant set of approximately 7,000 petitions sent to one tsadik alone) and various spatial factors: the distance between the tsadik’s court and the place from which supplicants traveled, the railway network utilized, the extent of the local renown of the tsadik, and so on.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 3.1.2

Map 3.1.2. Major dynasties. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.


Historical Atlas of Hasidism Map 5.3.1

Map 5.3.1. Dominant Hasidic groups c. 1900-1939. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

In turn, map 3.1.2 demonstrates more clearly than any previous research the regionalization of the main Hasidic groups’ areas of influence. Marking the Hasidic leaders’ place with different colors precisely demarcates the borders of the areas into which individual Hasidic dynasties expanded. Map 5.3.1, created on the basis of spatial analysis of data from nearly 3,000 Hasidic prayer halls, delineates the areas in which various Hasidic groups were dominant before World War II.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 7.4

Map 7.4. The Holocaust, 1939-1945. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

The map of the Holocaust is the most moving, as it tracks the destruction of Eastern European Jews on the basis of the tragic fate of 80 Hasidic leaders. Fortunately, the atlas does not end with this bleak image. Successive maps reveal that Hasidism has since been reborn in America, Israel, and Western Europe, and it thrives today. With the maps extending from the earliest Hasidic leaders in the mid-eighteenth century to the cultural geography of Hasidism today, the atlas covers the whole history of Hasidism and surprisingly many of its aspects. I feel I was privileged to work on such an unusual, comprehensive, and innovative project.

Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Amy Stewart: International Medieval Congress 2018

International Medieval CongressAlthough I have been helping with the behind-the-scenes organisation of conferences for 6 months now, this month I got to experience an academic conference front and centre selling books at the Princeton University Press booth for the first time.

From the 2 – 5 July, the University of Leeds opened its doors to medievalists from over 60 different countries for the annual International Medieval Congress – the largest annual humanities gathering in Europe! The IMC is a unique gathering that breathed with a deep enthusiasm for all things medieval, including an historical craft fair, live medieval music, costumes and even live medieval combat displays.

2018 was Princeton University Press’s fifth year in a row to exhibit at the IMC’s Bookfair in the university’s Parkinson Building alongside academic publishers from all over Europe. This was a good chance for us to catch up with our contacts at other academic presses, as well as meet new contacts and learn more about their medieval lists and what they’re working on at the moment.

For our UK Humanities Editor, Ben Tate, the IMC is a good chance to meet up with current and prospective authors. It’s also an opportunity to attend some of the many seminars the conference organises to stay up to date with the current trends in medieval research.

From a publicity and marketing perspective, it was great to see Princeton University Press’s medieval list in its context, with academics browsing the stand between seminars. We had several academics asking after one of our latest books, John Blair’s Building Anglo-Saxon England, mentioning that they had seen it advertised, read an article about it or heard about it on the grape vine. It’s really rewarding to know that our efforts to bring new titles to their audiences really do work – we completely sold out Building Anglo-Saxon England! It was also good to see a lot of attention for our most recent medieval history monograph, Trustworthy Men by Ian Forrest and to spot the author browsing the Princeton stand too.

We will see you next year Leeds.

A History of Judaism: Nineteen Jewish Groups You’ve Never Heard Of

This month, PUP is publishing the U.S. edition of Martin Goodman’s new History of Judaism. Goodman sifts through thousands of years of historical evidence, archaeological records, and theological debates to present a history of Judaism as a multifaceted and ever-changing belief system.

It comes as no surprise that throughout millennia and across continents, Judaism’s adherents have interpreted the religion’s teachings in myriad ways, living out their faith and articulating their religious identity accordingly. But have you heard of these 19 groups?


1. The Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the late Second Temple Period, were said to live in isolation six days a week and to eat and drink only after sunset.

2. The Ebionites were an ascetic group who lived east of the River Jordan in the second to fourth centuries CE and believed in elements of both Judaism and Christianity.

3. The Nazoraeans lived in Syria in the 400s CE and used an Aramaic gospel. While following much of the Torah, they also practiced elements of orthodox Christianity.

4. The ruling dynasty of the Khazars, a Turkish kingdom in the Lower Volga region, adopted Judaism in the eighth century, probably for geopolitical reasons. It is not known to what extent the general Khazar population did as well.

5. The Romaniot Jews in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, but took their liturgical rites from the Byzantine Empire. They used Judaeo-Greek (Greek written in the Hebrew alphabet) for religious purposes through the Middle Ages.

6. Nazirites took a temporary or permanent vow (described in the Septuagint as “the great vow”) to avoid wine and grapes, let their hair grow long, and avoid contact with corpse impurity.

7. Beginning around the eighth century, the Karaites denied the authority of the Talmud and rejected rabbinic interpretation of biblical law. For example, they fixed their calendar by celestial observation rather than mathematical calculation, did not observe Hanukkah, and discarded rules about menstrual impurity.

8. The Yudghanites were Karaites who believed that Abu ‘Isa, an eighth-century figure, was the Messiah. They did not drink alcohol, eat meat, or observe the Sabbath.

9. The Szombatos in 17th-century Transylvania were a breakaway Christian group who insisted that all Christians should observe the Old Testament laws literally.

10. The Jedid al-Islam, or “New Muslims,” were Persian Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in 1656, but secretly maintained Jewish practices.

11. Sabbatians were various groups of Jews who believed that 17th-century kabbalist Sabbetai Zevi was the messiah. Zevi lived in Turkey, but Sabbatians as far away as Germany heeded his call and sold all their possessions to prepare to join him in Jerusalem.

12. The Dönmeh were Sabbatians from Salonica who converted to Islam but secretly practiced Judaism. One sect of the Dönmeh believed that messianic Torah required all sexual prohibitions to be reversed and treated as positive commands.

13. The Frankists believed that 18th-century leader Jacob Frank was the reincarnation of Sabbetai Zevi. Some Frankists also believed that Frank’s daughter was a Romanov princess. The Frankists were baptized as Christians in Poland.

14. The Subbotniki, a breakaway Christian group in late 18th-century Russia, advocated adherence to certain Jewish laws and rituals and were exiled to Siberia.

15. The Bratslav Hasidim still make regular pilgrimages to the grave of their 18th-century leader, Rebbe Nahman, in Ukraine, chanting the syllables of his name, “Na Nah Nahma Nahman.”

16. The Status Quo Ante were communities of traditionalist Jews in mid-19th-century Hungary who chose to align themselves neither with orthodox groups nor with reformists.

17. The Bund, a Jewish socialist party founded in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, was devoted to a secular, Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jewish nationalism.

18. The Kach was an Israeli political party, formed in 1971, that advocated the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.

19. The Neturei Karta, or Guardians of the City, are Orthodox Jews who refuse on religious grounds to recognize the existence of the secular State of Israel.


Blue: Ten Surprising Facts about the Color Blue

We all know the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and the flag is (red, white, and) blue. Some of us have blue eyes, or blue blood, or are in a blue mood. And chances are you’re wearing something blue today. But how much do you know about the history of the color blue?

In Blue: The History of a Color, historian and symbologist Michel Pastoureau takes readers through the different meanings and uses of blue throughout Western history. Pastoureau’s fascinating anecdotes and lavish illustrations remind us that “color is first and foremost a social phenomenon.”

Originally published in 2000 as the first title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the histories of colors, Blue is now back in print.

Here are ten surprising facts about blue:

1. In ancient Rome, blue was associated with barbarians. Wearing blue was looked down on as a sign of eccentricity or mourning, and blue eyes were considered a sign of bad character or a physical deformity.

2. The uses and meanings of blue in Europe shifted sharply when it became the color of Mary’s cloak during the development of the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth century. From depictions of Mary, blue spread to other religious imagery.

3. Because of the low usage of blue in ancient Greek and Rome, researchers in the 1800s wondered if the ancient Greeks and Romans could even see the color blue. (They could.)

4. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, merchants of woad (a blue plant-based dye) and madder (a red plant-based dye) competed fiercely and even violently to discredit each other’s colors.

5. During the Reformation, blue was classed with white, black, gray and brown as an “honest” color.

6. Blue was the symbolic color of the French Revolution, but France had trouble maintaining a large enough supply of indigo dye to keep its military dressed in blue. In 1829, infantrymen were ordered to wear red pants instead. They switched back to blue, however, in 1915, after the visibility of their bright red pants led to mass casualties in the first year of the Great War.

7. Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther popularized blue coats for young men. The character Werther wears a “simple blue dress coat” with a yellow vest and trousers. Goethe saw blue and yellow as symbolic opposites, with blue being positive (active, warm, and bright) color and yellow being negative (passive, weak, and cold).

8. Between 1910 and 1950, black uniforms and clothing gave way to navy blue in one of the most important fashion events of the century.

9. Levi Strauss denim jeans were the first garments to have the brand name displayed on the outside. This was done to distinguish them from competing blue jeans brands Lee and Blue Bell (now Wrangler).

10. More than half of American adults today say blue is their favorite color. Pastoreau suggests that this statistic be taken with a grain of salt, even as he cites it as evidence of just how far blue has come since antiquity.


Kyle Harper: How climate change and disease helped the fall of Rome

HarperAt some time or another, every historian of Rome has been asked to say where we are, today, on Rome’s cycle of decline. Historians might squirm at such attempts to use the past but, even if history does not repeat itself, nor come packaged into moral lessons, it can deepen our sense of what it means to be human and how fragile our societies are.

In the middle of the second century, the Romans controlled a huge, geographically diverse part of the globe, from northern Britain to the edges of the Sahara, from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. The generally prosperous population peaked at 75 million. Eventually, all free inhabitants of the empire came to enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship. Little wonder that the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon judged this age the ‘most happy’ in the history of our species – yet today we are more likely to see the advance of Roman civilisation as unwittingly planting the seeds of its own demise.

Five centuries later, the Roman empire was a small Byzantine rump-state controlled from Constantinople, its near-eastern provinces lost to Islamic invasions, its western lands covered by a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms. Trade receded, cities shrank, and technological advance halted. Despite the cultural vitality and spiritual legacy of these centuries, this period was marked by a declining population, political fragmentation, and lower levels of material complexity. When the historian Ian Morris at Stanford University created a universal social-development index, the fall of Rome emerged as the greatest setback in the history of human civilisation.

Explanations for a phenomenon of this magnitude abound: in 1984, the German classicist Alexander Demandt catalogued more than 200 hypotheses. Most scholars have looked to the internal political dynamics of the imperial system or the shifting geopolitical context of an empire whose neighbours gradually caught up in the sophistication of their military and political technologies. But new evidence has started to unveil the crucial role played by changes in the natural environment. The paradoxes of social development, and the inherent unpredictability of nature, worked in concert to bring about Rome’s demise.

Climate change did not begin with the exhaust fumes of industrialisation, but has been a permanent feature of human existence. Orbital mechanics (small variations in the tilt, spin and eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit) and solar cycles alter the amount and distribution of energy received from the Sun. And volcanic eruptions spew reflective sulphates into the atmosphere, sometimes with long-reaching effects. Modern, anthropogenic climate change is so perilous because it is happening quickly and in conjunction with so many other irreversible changes in the Earth’s biosphere. But climate change per se is nothing new.

The need to understand the natural context of modern climate change has been an unmitigated boon for historians. Earth scientists have scoured the planet for paleoclimate proxies, natural archives of the past environment. The effort to put climate change in the foreground of Roman history is motivated both by troves of new data and a heightened sensitivity to the importance of the physical environment. It turns out that climate had a major role in the rise and fall of Roman civilisation. The empire-builders benefitted from impeccable timing: the characteristic warm, wet and stable weather was conducive to economic productivity in an agrarian society. The benefits of economic growth supported the political and social bargains by which the Roman empire controlled its vast territory. The favourable climate, in ways subtle and profound, was baked into the empire’s innermost structure.

The end of this lucky climate regime did not immediately, or in any simple deterministic sense, spell the doom of Rome. Rather, a less favourable climate undermined its power just when the empire was imperilled by more dangerous enemies – Germans, Persians – from without. Climate instability peaked in the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian. Work by dendro-chronologists and ice-core experts points to an enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s CE, unlike anything else in the past few thousand years. This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years. This phase of climate deterioration had decisive effects in Rome’s unravelling. It was also intimately linked to a catastrophe of even greater moment: the outbreak of the first pandemic of bubonic plague.

Disruptions in the biological environment were even more consequential to Rome’s destiny. For all the empire’s precocious advances, life expectancies ranged in the mid-20s, with infectious diseases the leading cause of death. But the array of diseases that preyed upon Romans was not static and, here too, new sensibilities and technologies are radically changing the way we understand the dynamics of evolutionary history – both for our own species, and for our microbial allies and adversaries.

The highly urbanised, highly interconnected Roman empire was a boon to its microbial inhabitants. Humble gastro-enteric diseases such as Shigellosis and paratyphoid fevers spread via contamination of food and water, and flourished in densely packed cities. Where swamps were drained and highways laid, the potential of malaria was unlocked in its worst form – Plasmodium falciparum – a deadly mosquito-borne protozoon. The Romans also connected societies by land and by sea as never before, with the unintended consequence that germs moved as never before, too. Slow killers such as tuberculosis and leprosy enjoyed a heyday in the web of interconnected cities fostered by Roman development.

However, the decisive factor in Rome’s biological history was the arrival of new germs capable of causing pandemic events. The empire was rocked by three such intercontinental disease events. The Antonine plague coincided with the end of the optimal climate regime, and was probably the global debut of the smallpox virus. The empire recovered, but never regained its previous commanding dominance. Then, in the mid-third century, a mysterious affliction of unknown origin called the Plague of Cyprian sent the empire into a tailspin. Though it rebounded, the empire was profoundly altered – with a new kind of emperor, a new kind of money, a new kind of society, and soon a new religion known as Christianity. Most dramatically, in the sixth century a resurgent empire led by Justinian faced a pandemic of bubonic plague, a prelude to the medieval Black Death. The toll was unfathomable – maybe half the population was felled.

The plague of Justinian is a case study in the extraordinarily complex relationship between human and natural systems. The culprit, the Yersinia pestis bacterium, is not a particularly ancient nemesis; evolving just 4,000 years ago, almost certainly in central Asia, it was an evolutionary newborn when it caused the first plague pandemic. The disease is permanently present in colonies of social, burrowing rodents such as marmots or gerbils. However, the historic plague pandemics were colossal accidents, spillover events involving at least five different species: the bacterium, the reservoir rodent, the amplification host (the black rat, which lives close to humans), the fleas that spread the germ, and the people caught in the crossfire.

Genetic evidence suggests that the strain of Yersinia pestis that generated the plague of Justinian originated somewhere near western China. It first appeared on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and, in all likelihood, was smuggled in along the southern, seaborne trading networks that carried silk and spices to Roman consumers. It was an accident of early globalisation. Once the germ reached the seething colonies of commensal rodents, fattened on the empire’s giant stores of grain, the mortality was unstoppable.

The plague pandemic was an event of astonishing ecological complexity. It required purely chance conjunctions, especially if the initial outbreak beyond the reservoir rodents in central Asia was triggered by those massive volcanic eruptions in the years preceding it. It also involved the unintended consequences of the built human environment – such as the global trade networks that shuttled the germ onto Roman shores, or the proliferation of rats inside the empire. The pandemic baffles our distinctions between structure and chance, pattern and contingency. Therein lies one of the lessons of Rome. Humans shape nature – above all, the ecological conditions within which evolution plays out. But nature remains blind to our intentions, and other organisms and ecosystems do not obey our rules. Climate change and disease evolution have been the wild cards of human history.

Our world now is very different from ancient Rome. We have public health, germ theory and antibiotic pharmaceuticals. We will not be as helpless as the Romans, if we are wise enough to recognise the grave threats looming around us, and to use the tools at our disposal to mitigate them. But the centrality of nature in Rome’s fall gives us reason to reconsider the power of the physical and biological environment to tilt the fortunes of human societies. Perhaps we could come to see the Romans not so much as an ancient civilisation, standing across an impassable divide from our modern age, but rather as the makers of our world today. They built a civilisation where global networks, emerging infectious diseases and ecological instability were decisive forces in the fate of human societies. The Romans, too, thought they had the upper hand over the fickle and furious power of the natural environment. History warns us: they were wrong.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of The Fate of Rome, recently released, as well as Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Walter Scheidel longlisted for the 2017 Cundill Prize

We are delighted to announce that The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel has been longlisted for the prestigious Cundill History Prize 2017. Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2017, the international prize recognizes the best history writing in English. A press conference reception will be held to announce a short list of the three finalists on 26 October 2017 in London. On 16 November, 2017, the three finalists will be invited to the Cundill History Prize Gala in Montreal where the winner will be announced. We offer our heartfelt congratulations to Professor Scheidel and to all of the authors selected for this honor.