December 26, 2008

What's a war?

I do not doubt that people who read in all these books about endless wars with the Volscians will feel surfeited by them, but they will also feel as astonished as I did myself when I examined the historians who were more nearly contemporary with these events, and will ask where the Volscians and Aequi got a sufficient number of soldiers after so many defeats. (VI 12)

War with the Volscians and the Aequi seem to be a constant theme of early Roman history: on the face of it though this seems confusing, war, as we understand it, ruins societies- continuing war for hundreds of years would leave someone exhausted, someone conquered. Here though it seems that hundreds of years of war gave birth to even more wars. Livy himself suggests some reasons for this- he suggests either successive generations of young men were raised to fight Rome and that in previous times the territory inhabited by the two groups was much more fertile than it was in Livy's day. Changing fertility is not unrealistic: Egypt and Mesopotamia used to be incredibly fertile agricultural districts- they are not so now. But I think we can add to Livy's explanations with some suggestions of our own.

Firstly its worth asking the question about who were the Volscians and Aequi. Livy's sources were compiled centuries after the event. It does not seem implausible therefore that what we know of, through Livy, as Volscians and Aequi, were actually collective nouns for invaders in general. There may be a confusion here between several Italian peoples- and what we may see therefore is that these nouns are used generically. Its a thought at least and to some extent Livy agrees noting that it is possible that the new levies were not recruited from 'the same tribes, although it was always the same nation that was at war.' (VI 12)

Secondly there is the nature of warfare. Warfare as we and Livy understand it and as the Romans of Camillus's days understood it are slightly different entities. I wonder whether Livy's sources deceive him into imagining full scale warfare- whereas he should actually be thinking of raiding. We know that Livy himself described the object of the wars that the Volscians and Aequi fought in terms of plunder, I suspect what these 'wars' are is raids for plunder. What we may see here is two things- firstly a bias in Roman reporting- away from reporting failures and particularly from reporting successful raids on cities (and raids on non-Roman sites) and secondly a bias in the reporting to exaggerating the numbers involved. If we think of war bands coming down upon Rome to gain plunder, and sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, with punitive expeditions sent by Rome to fight back, I think we can see a more stable situation in which long term conflict leads neither to destruction nor to absolute victory.

The word 'war' can deceive us. The last thing we should note is that the size of armies and therefore their impact on population levels varies hugely. In the Middle Ages- thousands of men or even at times hundreds encountered each other in major battles: compare that to a First World War army of millions and you can see that whereas it is possible to raise several medieval armies in one country, it would be difficult to raise a second or third first world war size army. The same contrast functions in Livy's case- the wars that he is describing may be wars involving small amounts of people- hundreds, possibly barely a thousand- scarcely numbers that would impact on the ability of the participants being able to fight again. Introduce into that situation the possible importance of plunder and you have a situation in which perpetual warfare is quite possible- indeed probable.

December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas everyone

To everyone who wonders past this blog Merry Christmas- there should be some posting before then so a Happy New Year. I've had a cold for a while which is why posting has been slow- but tis the season of goodwill- hope you and yours are well and have a good time with lots of presents!

December 22, 2008

Penny Bloods and Novels


I've been involved for the last couple of weeks in debates with various bloggers about what has happened to civilisation over the last couple of centuries- has it declined? One of the indicies of that has to be what level of interest there is in books. What people read and what they understood about what they read is a perrenial and interesting debate- as is the question of what people read today and what they understand now about what they read. A useful way of considering that though is to consider what happened in the Victorian era- when popular literature exploded. It is very difficult to work out prices in the Victorian era- but at least one extimate I have seen places the pound at that point as worth twenty five to fifty pounds in today's money- maybe even one hundred pounds. A highly paid skilled workman in the period might expect to earn about 80 to 90 shillings (around 4 pounds) a week. Bear those figures in mind for what comes next.

The economics of book buying are interesting in this context- we have established a raw measure of what a person in the upper working class might be able to spend but not the price of books. In truth books were incredibly expensive. Three volume novels (of which there were many) frequently sold for 31 shillings (a pound was 20 shillings)- those in two volumes cost roughly a pound and a single volume novel was much less, retailing at 5 shillings (but these would be aimed at a younger audience). Publishers complained that the British were not a 'book buying people' and first editions numbered in hundreds of copies not the thousands often seen today. Even Middle Class readers would subscribe to a circulating library which would provide them with the newest fiction, rather than attempting to buy volumes themselves.

What changed was the growth of novels in serial form- retailed in journals like Charles Dickens' All the Year Round, these novels would be sold in parts. Almost all of Dickens's novels were originally published as episodic novels- Pickwick Papers came out in 18 separate parts. Dickens was the best selling novelist of the era: but others like Trollope, Thackery, Gaskell, Eliot and Hardy also published their works in serial form. These were much more affordable for the ordinary public. You can see the effect they had- as leading authors lamented the ill educated general public becoming involved in the process of choosing and designating successful literature: Wilkie Collins for example wrote in Household Words (then edited by Dickens) that 'the future of English fiction may rest with an Unknown public, which is now waiting to be taught the difference between a good book and a bad book'.

Of course that public did not only read novelistic fictions- alongside these fictions, a newly educated public (thanks to philanphropic enterprise and a series of education acts from the 1850s onwards) consumed so called penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. The Penny Bloods were melodramatic romances- often highly fantastical stories of derring do and crime. They caused a moral panic- in 1888 an MP raised questions with the Home Secretary about the effect of the bloods upon young boys, noting that two boys waiting their trial in Maidstone Prison for murder had been inspired by tales of Dick Turpin and Sweeney Todd. These 'bloods' also were published alongside parodies of well known authors: Oliver Twiss, Nicholas Nickerby and the Penny Pickwick were all published by Edward Lloyd when Charles Dickens' works came out and Llyod's imitations were in some cases (Pickwick in particular) vastly possible with hundreds of thousands of copies sold, in some cases more copies sold than the originals.

This profusion of literature suggests something to me though which I think is important. It suggests the explosion of a literary market- and went alongside technical innovations in printing (that Louis James for one described as the greatest innovation in printing between the time of Caxton and the 1960s). What happened was that you are beggining by the end of the 19th Century and beggining of the 20th Century to see a much greater book buying public- a public that stretched far lower into the social structure than it ever had before. You cannot undervalue that change in terms of what it did to society: what it did to the way that society operated, we may still be living with some of the consequences, or with what it did to the educational lives of many many people. Its worth remembering that change, when we speak of the decline of civilisation.

December 21, 2008

Etz Limon

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consumed lives and energies throughout the Middle East: whatever your opinions of the roots of that conflict, its persistance has been a tragedy running through the politics of both sides for far too long. The Lemon Tree deals with that conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian woman and her friends and an Israeli family. The story is pretty basic. The Israeli Minister of Defence has moved into a new house just beside the West Bank/Israeli border: the house borders on the farm of a middle aged Palestinian widow (Salma) who makes her livelihood from her lemons. Shin Bet believes that the lemon grove might represent a security threat to the minister- a militant concealed in the trees might be able to approach and attack his house. The Minister orders therefore that the grove be cut down- the widow, distressed, consults a lawyer and takes the case to the courts, attempting to override the order. The resulting drama both in the case and for the characters takes over the rest of the film.

There are a number of interesting themes here that are worth mentioning. One is something that I have to admit I barely understand- the attachment of farmers to a particular piece of land and to their crops. Trees are twice referred to as semi-human: once by the minister recalling what his farmer father told him, once by the Salma's friend and co-worker to the court considering the case. Salma is offered compensation, but for her as a flashback establishes, the point is the emotional connection that she has with the land. That connection, the implication goes, is almost what has replaced her fled family and dead husband. Her poverty and loneliness are bearable because she has the trees that her father taught her to pick and prune- those trees sustain a pride based on rural cultivation, a pride and self respect that is purely admirable.

Another theme running through the story is the sexism implicit on both sides of the divide. It is strongly implied that the minister is having an affair with a pretty young receptionist, neglecting his wife. His wife emerges as a central character- able to sympathise with Salma but unable to do anything about it: her concerns are dismissed by her officious husband and her one intervention in the plot seals her own alienation from her husband. The sexism is evident on the other side too- and is much much worse. Salma is oppressed by a regional authoritarian traditional male hierarchy, who refuse to let her see her lawyer (who she slowly falls in love with) and rebukes her for allowing her son to work in America. The under current of oppression is constant and Salma's bravery is possibly in confronting her own side of the divide as much as it is in confronting the lawyers she faces in the court. Her own love story with the lawyer illustrates the limits for a woman in Palestinian society.

Lastly of course there is the occupation itself- which is if you like the texture around which the story develops. The Minister's name, Israel, is not an accident. But in general I found this part of the plot dealt with pretty reasonably. The Minister is portrayed as sensible- if you were told that there was a potential threat to your life by the secret service, you might be willing to cut down some lemon trees. The soldiers are portrayed as even more sympathetic- we see a soldier standing on a look out post, but rather than being a sinister presence, he is a comic one- we get bursts from the audio course he is taking, whilst on boring sentry duty, and he comes across as a nice guy. That's true of the secret service men too- they occasionally seem officious but not brutal. As this is a story about Palestinian dispossession- the Palestinian angle is well covered too, indeed the lawyer who is close to the PLO seems fair and willing to take the case pro bono. Good people occasionally break each other's hearts through a bad situation seems to be the message of this film about the conflict- but it cannot deal with any of the deeper roots, the issues that fill the news broadcasts. It is ultimately too simple a story to say anything much about the politics of the region.

As a film, it acheives what it wants to do. I liked two of the performances in particular. Hiam Abbass is wonderful as Salma- she conveys the pride and self respect she feels brilliantly. She does things with a glance, a look away, that could make her a silent film star- she doesn't need speech to convey her emotions. Rona Lipaz-Michael is stunningly beautiful as the minister's wife (something that renders the affair implausible) but she too does a very good job- conveying her difficult role, her inchoate suspisions and her sympathy both with Israel and Salma, with perfect economy. Occasionally there are false notes- but overall the standard of the film is good- the false notes mainly come in the cloying relationship between Salma and the lawyer. In the final analysis though, this film is a simple story with a couple of interesting messages- mostly about the societies that find themselves in this conflict rather than the conflict- and those messages are delivered in an entertaining way.

Cineastes and students of politics might rebuke the film's simplicity: I'd advise you relax, sit back and enjoy it.