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Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

Entries in ancient history (4)

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed / Turning Points in Ancient History - Eric H. Cline (2014)

1177 BC : The Year Civilization Collpsed - Eric Cline

Ancient history has been affecting something of a revival of interest in the last 30 years, not only because of it's rich heritage of story which is often converted to popular media (via Hollywood), but because of the amazing strides and discoveries made in history, archeology, anthropology, and even ancient climates. So much new and clarifying information is coming to light in the technical and scientific communities that there is a need for experts with broad experience to retell the narratives of the ancient civilizations to modern audiences.

Into this space has stepped Eric Cline and his spectacular book, "1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed."  For most of us, we didn't even know there was another "Dark Ages" in history- other than the one we learned about in high school or college that equated the European middle ages a period of intellectual and economic regression caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire. But, in fact, the ancient era called the "Bronze Age" came to a dramatic close in the late 2nd millennium BC, with the sweeping collapse of nearly all prominent civilizations in the ancient world.

It is this ancient, and first, "world wide" collapse of societies that is examined and expounded by Professor Eric H Cline in "1177 BC." What stands out immediately to the reader is the astonishing deluge of interesting history presented in a powerful narrative style. Cline is not just an archaeologist, he is a a genuinely gifted communicator. Thoughtful and witty, he writes as much for the palpable sense of the societies he is studying as he does for the cold hard facts of the major milestones in the narrative. And this makes the book itself a genuine work of art.

But thankfully, we aren't just left with that. Cline backs up his narrative with profound science and a balanced hand both at antiquity and a look to the possibility that future discoveries may turn the narrative a different direction as the history is clarified. Without the pompous self-assuredness that seems to often rest in the tone of modern authors of books on historical topics, Cline avoids condescending to the reader and frankly (but seriously) admits what facts are sure and which are not.  This doesn't weaken his arguments, however, and the entire book becomes much more plausible because of the care and contrition that the author has taken in its presenting.

The topic itself sweeps from ancient Egypt (during the "New Kings" era), to Mesopotamia, to Anatolia and the Hittite empire, to the Cretan (Minoan) and Aegean (Mycenaean) kingdoms and even down through much of the Levant- touching on all the crucial components that came together in the collapse of a truly interconnected world in the Bronze Age. "1177 BC" is as much about economics and politics as it is about war and migrations of mysterious "Sea Peoples". The book unleashes several new concepts about language, texts and lost civilizations. One such civilization, found by archaeology in the last century, is the story of the newly discovered kingdom of Ugarit. That, alone, is a brilliant segment of the book and is a perfect example of what Cline does best- combines his technical eye with a story-teller's prose to paint for us great historical landscapes.

History, especially ancient history, contains some of the most fascinating narratives available. And in the hands of a scholar and writer like Eric Cline, those narratives launch off the page and into our imaginations. The book is repleat with science, but gracious as art. The best ancient history book I have yet to read. Easily qualifies for our Editor's Choice Award. If you have any interest in history, civilizations, grand narratives and even where our own society may be headed-- get this book! You will absolutely love it!


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon (1776)

Defining an era has come to be the popular work of historians who have had the fortune to write well enough to have appeal to the general public. The work of research, selection, collation, evaluation and summation on a given time and subject seems daunting enough. But imagine for a moment that you were tasked with writing a comprehensive book on a subject that covered about 1500 years of time and included most of the known world. This is the kind of work that was tackled by Edward Gibbon in writing his multi-volume tome, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

Before we begin to appreciate the topic and contents of the book, we must recognize the unbelievable accomplishment of Gibbon. The sheer amount of content, volume of research and power of mind needed to accomplish this task is nothing short of legendary. And the impact resulting from this work has been no less impressive. Published in 1776, its appearance in the same year as two of the most important documents in modern history, The Wealth of Nations (by Adam Smith) and the American Declaration of Independence, is not subservient in weight to these other works. What these documents meant to the immediacy of political and economic changes in the 18th century and beyond, Gibbon’s work has meant to academicians, historians and scholars who received in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the seminal account of European (and world) history for the time period of 2nd to 14th century AD.

Exploring a summary of the details of this book is literally impossible in less than 20-30 page report for even the scantest of overviews. The Roman Empire, according to Gibbon, reached reached its apex power and stability within the purview of the reign of Augustus Caesar and was subsequently managed with intrepidity under the stewardship of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines. The end of that era marked the conclusion of the Roman majestic glory, after which the fruit, growth and full harvest of corruption impaled the Empire with repeated thrusts of political, economic, military and societal failure. The Roman empire expired not in one cataclysmic event, but in a gradual failure of systems and life highlighted by poignant defeats throughout its structure. Indeed, according to Gibbon, it was the weight, success and vastness of this magnificent empire that ultimately pulled its components and leadership down on top of itself.

Gibbon’s articulation of the facts and illumination of the forces behind those facts builds this book into an epic not only of history but of the genius of this author's mind as a great tool of systems analysis.  The writing is so methodical, it takes on a rhythm in each progression of reign from emperors to dynasties to epochs. The reader is given a clear (even if daunting at times) assessment of each and every ruler of the Roman legacy. This is as one would expect. But what one would not expect is the deep and penetrating review of literally every other force at work throughout the known world during the long tenure of the Roman world. From Atilla the Hun to Mohammed (the growth of Islam) to Genghis Khan to the long and arduous story of the Christian religion to the history of each of the barbarian nations and tribes to the dozens of tribes and rulers of the Arab, Scandinavian, Germanic, African and even Mongol streams. Every single influence that made its presence felt in the Roman world is examined, with elaborate prose, via the pen of Edward Gibbon.

The writing is obviously scholarly, yet is very readable in our current English form. While it is rife with detail it is also pithy and even humorous at times. The only vise which Gibbon displays with regularity is his almost insistent propensity to present his points in threefold form. It seems like every section or detail was listed with a triplicate procession of reasons, even when it might have just been a habit that Gibbon filled with his illustrious prose rather than the succinct clarity of solid data. Gibbon also spends regular opportunity to berate the prejudices of various other historians of antiquity and the subjects of his own writing- although reading his book 250 years later, his own prejudices shine through as clearly as those he occasionally demonizes. It will always be the vice of every writer to misunderstand the worldview within which their own work was undertaken, and Gibbon does not escape from this truism. However, he does seem to be aware of this possibility and rains or shines on the variously good/bad qualities of any given subject where it was clearly needed.

It is from the story of Roman power and descent that we see the pre-eminent example of the idiom "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". The dozens of leaders and pretenders that rise and attempt the imperial purple of Roman emperorship turn into a mind-numbing repetition of ascent to prominence, coup of the current emperor, rise of power for the new, corruption and decline into another regime toppled by murderous treachery.  This cycle is so certain that it becomes the only surety in the Roman story during its decline. Yet, there are heroes- people whose noble character rises above a desire for power. And those great characters break the mantra of power and corruption. It is in that contrast that we can glimpse moments of greatness. In the Roman story there is a reflective narrative of our human condition- one that has tragedy and glory. It is within this meta-narrative that we can glean greatness- and Gibbon is an excellent narrator.

What you have in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is a complete and unrelenting archive of over a millennia of history of the greatest geopolitical entity that has ever existed on the earth.  It is written in strident prose and breathtaking detail. Included in the footnotes and commentary of the book is much about the various historical research that has been done since Gibbon’s work. While some small parts of the book's data are now recognized as misinformed, the vast majority of it stands not only as a great resource but as the seminal text of the Roman epic.

You may well have many reasons to avoid reading this book, including perhaps its size of over 3500 pages (depending on the version you are reading). But none of those reasons are worthy of stopping the thoughtful person from reading, understanding and gleaning the wisdom of this tremendous book.


Amazon Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes

History of the World: Fifth Edition - J.M Roberts (2007)

One of the greatest teachers in life is history. The ability to grasp, in our time, the effects and movements of the past is not just a discipline for  university arts departments but an important store of wisdom for all walks of life.  For the last few years, I have been researching specific realms of history- Christian history, church history, period history, economic history. But recently, I hoped to read something of a more comprehensive history that would cover the entire span of our known record of humanity. After a bit of research, I picked "History of the World" by J.M. Roberts as the volume to tackle for this purpose. I am both thankful and delighted to have read this book.

"History of the World" is a dazzlingly readable, even-handed and structured volume that attempts to accomplish the task of summarizing the chronicle of humanity by keeping its task to a defined set of parameters- it centers around the understanding and historiography of civilizations. Its vastness as a work is managed by Roberts keeping a sharp aim at disentangling himself from bringing enumerable details of trivial interest into the picture. He keeps to the task of defining the appearance of man, the eventual birth of civilizations, the development of distinct collectives of civilizations (what would later become nations/peoples), the primary movements and interactions of the civilizations, the main thinkers, leaders and influencers of those civilizations and the uncountable interconnections (and their important effects) amongst the civilizations that would eventually develop. More than just events on a chronographical timeline, Roberts also talks about huge influencing concepts, such as religions, nationalities, ideologies, major epochs, technologies, and pivotal events and people.

What I enjoyed most was the fact that such a voluminous book (a massive 1,200 pages) was consistent throughout the chapters in its approach yet remained enjoyable, even dryly humorous at times. No subject was treated without the possibility of uncovering paradoxical viewpoints- to which Roberts was constantly going to detail to help the reader see. You left feeling like specific points in history weren't as singularly simplistic as you had once heard. I liked this approach as it removes dogmatic viewpoints from becoming the plumb line of how we look back on the past.

The book covers so vast a subject matter I will not try to comprehensively summarize it here. Consider the title of the book as proper and accurate scope of its content and you will be both well informed and well pleased as you read. You will hear and understand everything from pre-historical Paleolithic man, to the first Sumerian and Mesopotamian civilizations, to the ancient classical world of Greek and Roman dominance to Medieval Europe to developing China and India, to enlightenment struck modernity to imperialist Europe, dominated Africa, the explosive growing American continents (as well as their colonialist discovery and expansion), world wars of the 20th century and the trek of history right up to the present day. In one sweeping volume Roberts breathes life and engagement into the real inertia you find flowing across the civilizations of the world through history- man as a change agent in and to his own environment.

In my reviewing of the book, I initially found several small points of minor error (the light treatment of a major figure such as Napoleon, mistaken biographical information on Castro and incorrect dating of the first man on the moon). However, I quickly learned there was an updated edition of the book, which I secured and read. It is clear the editors who updated the work have taken their jobs seriously as the last revision ("The New Penguin History of the World" - rev 5) addressed every issue I could find- either correcting it outright, or properly formatting the narrative to remove the erroneous way in which the data could be misinterpreted. The only very slight hint of editorializing I sensed in the book was the regularly appreciative nods to the last 3 centuries of English history. Roberts occasionally gives possible discounting benevolence to the intentions of the British imperial actions in both its expansive and contracting years. The leaning is slight, but it does tend to feel a bit discounting of a number of times of British actions that surely would not have seemed "better intentioned" as Roberts often implies.  This is a minor and understandable pause in his otherwise amazingly apt and generally conciliatory tone taken for most subjects of uncertain nature.

Overall the book was absolutely astounding in keeping account of such huge proportions of our history while still retaining a vital and engaging narrative. I can't recommend it enough- if you have a spare 60 hours, this is your best bet for a truly great read!


Amazon Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter - Thomas Cahill (2003)

There are few cultures which ring as much interest to the historian as the Ancient Greeks. As part of his "Hinges of History" series, Thomas Cahill endeavors to appropriate history, archeology, legends and song into a unique narrative of the Greek origins, expanse, collapse and ending. In "Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter" Cahill leans so prominently on the texts of Greek lore, one is scarcely able to sift between myth and matter. This frustrated me at first, since he seemed to imply that the Greek psyche was built (along with the language) as an indistinguishable amalgam of story and reality. A story of Zeus would give way to information about archeology; quotes of Iliad and Odyssey fade into history about Plato and Socrates. This was the first of a series of pains you must endure to get to the point of enjoying this book. Let's get those out of the way before we move on to the admirable qualities of this volume.

For the person looking for scholarly insight into Ancient Greek culture, they may come away saddened by Cahill's narrative here. Only a few pages are given to some very important subjects, such as the development of pre-historic Greek culture (and what is told leans strongly on the questionable sources of Heinrich Schliemann- though he admits this). Even more strange is the almost complete absence of any telling of the story of Alexander the Great, who would seem to be one of the most prominent figures in the history of the world, let alone the Greek narrative. In just 3 sentences, Cahill introduces, explains and kills off Alexander. This seems like a vast exclusion to me.

In addition, Cahill seems to be overly assertive that classical historians of academic stripes should be the final authority on theories of sociological progress and development. He takes swipes at Jared Diamond's efforts as a scientist/historian, when he says :

Nor can we legitimately trace some single simple element—say, the way microbes worked in our favor or our strategic geographical position—as giving the West its superiority. Hanson takes to task the popular biohistorian Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) on just this point: “The efforts of those who seek to reduce history to biology and geography deprecate the power and mystery of culture, and so often turn desperate.… Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more—all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture, but it is impossible to determine exactly whether man, nature, or chance is the initial catalyst for the origins of Western civilization [emphasis mine].”[1]

If his jealous jab of calling Diamond a "popular biohistorian" doesn't seem overt enough (Cahill would seem to be the last person who should be snubbing people for writing for the masses on scholarly subjects) his self-serving intentions manifest full force in his next paragraph, when he says :

To inquire into the ways in which an unpredictable historical combination—in this case, the combination of dogged military practicality with unprecedented citizen responsibility—may generate a new cultural force that has tremendous impact on the world over many centuries brings us as close as we are likely to come to the deep mysteries of the historical process.[2]

Apparently for Cahill, the only thing that can "bring us as close as we are likely to come" is to use the study of the "historical process" (IE. the kind of process that apparently only a historian as Cahill can use), and ignore biological science, linguistics, anthropology and archeology that don't support his own theories. It feels more than a bit childish to begin a book by slapping all the other kids on the playground, but hey, it's Cahill.

Finally, the last angst that is embedded in this book is the author's unceasing use of the f-word. Presumably sex is a topic of great interest to the Greeks, and therefore makes it a point for much writing. But his colloquialisms assumed in translation are added to by his backhanded writing style that leans into the cursing mode whenever he gets the chance. And he gets a lot of them.

But with those slights taken care of, the story told in "Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea" is both lush and human, grand and yet debasing. Cahill isn't shy about his goal, as he states:

"For me, the historian’s principal task should be to raise the dead to life." [3]

This is precisely what this book does. Cahill weaves a story that one can imagine a 5th century BC Greek telling. The figures of Agammemnon, Achilles and Hector seem as real as the the scientific progression of Aristotle. Even more so. The book focuses on the chronological progression of Greek language, culture, art and thought.

Because Greek becomes the lingua franca of the ancient world, and (along with latin) essential to a large portion of remaining historical documents, Cahill reminds you throughout the book of the concepts and words that continue to impact our own world to this day (as well as important ways it has impacted it historically). Probably here is an area where even more time could have been taken to draw the link between Greek conquest of the ancient world (via Alexandar) and the language and trade routes created by the same, and how those essentially "paved the way" for Roman domination of the ancient world. But again, since Alexander recieves no space, those points are left untouched.

Culturally, as I mentioned Cahill discusses varying degrees of detail on areas including womens roles/rights, government, sexuality and politics. Art becomes a main point for the book particularly around the depiction of humanity as epitomised through the statues of kouros - the ancient Greek classical renditions of the young male, traditionally nude. You learn much about how the depiction of humanity from Cahill's understanding here. How the Kritian boy (a famous example of a kouros) came to be, how this art form was aided by (and helped develop) out understanding of both anatomical structure of the human body and would later color our psychology of how we see ourselves. The book explores even the impact of the kouros model into the 20th century when Nasa represented human beings in a similar fashion the first discs that were sent deep into space on early Pioneer space craft (particularly the figures of the man and woman, where you see that NASA themselves recognize the rendition as being tied to Greek antiquity). Cahill belabors the point of kouros to the point that he states, without reservation, that it may have been the most impactive single concept the Greeks passed down to the rest of civilization. 

Of course, there is a sea of regular characters that aren't forgotten, such as Socrates, Plato, Pythagorus, Artistotle, Hypocrates and more. The roots of such foundational thinkers that are located in ancient Greek world come alive in this book. But again, much less is made of the details of scientific weight of these people or their theories than could be.

In the end, one feels as though they have experienced ancient Greek life more than taken a well structured series of lessons on Greek accomplishments. You understand the nuances Cahill is attempting (and succeeding) at making related to this ancient culture, and he is careful to point out that it is those nuances of thought that penetrate such vast areas of science, philosophy, language and art even today.

Having read all of the books in Cahill's "Hinges of History" (many of them multiple times), I needed two complete passes at this book to feel like I "got" enough out of it to both write a cogent review and digest the narrative. To be honest, this book seems the weakest of the "Hinges" series. Cahill does so much effusing on sexuality as to make it seem more his obsession than part of his investigation. The volume is certainly worth reading, but not as a matter of technical or scientific history or accomplishment. He does give you the sense of weight of Greek thought on world history, but does that without largely tracing extensive details in mathematics, science or philosophy other than list names and categories.

If you are thinking of reading it to cover the entire "Hinges" series, it is definitely a "must read". If you want to "get into the head" of an ancient Greek, this is about as close as possible as you will get. But if you are looking for a particularly strong historical reference for ancient Greek culture, thought and people, this isn't the right book.

Amazon Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


[1] Cahill, Thomas (2010-04-21). Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (Kindle Location 912-917). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

[2] Ibid., Kindle Location 918

[3]  Ibid., Kindle Location 117