Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny


I was forced to confront that I did not know as much Roman history as I assumed. Watts documents the breakdowns in republican norms that ultimately led to Augustus, nee Octavian, Caesar.

He is also, one assumes, drawing a bright line between Roman acceptance of the collapse of norms and our current crisis of democracy. Admirable, if maybe a bit tacked on. History does not exist to fit our notions.

The earlier crises are better reading than the final crisis, because I was left with a sense of knowing figures like Pompey the Great, Sulla, and Tiberius Gracchus. But vital, late players like Marc Antony and Octavian remain opaque in Mortal Republic.

For you Ciceronians, this quote might amuse or gall:

Cicero was an equestrian with a gift for long-wonder, self-congratulatory orations that nevertheless often proved extremely persuasive.

Cicero does not come out of Mortal Republic with much dignity intact.

Biographical Sketches Of Famous Men


The only three included (I don’t know if there were more, but I must assume so) are of Washington, Franklin, and Wythe. Franklin here suit my own preconceived notion of him as a sort of wise clown, deflecting conflict with humor and contributing through a sort of peacemaking between parties. One wonders his feelings on the underlying subject of the Washington sketch, which is, like war, politics by other means: Republicanism vs Federalism.

Notes On Virginia


You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.

Anglo-Saxon


I suppose my eyes passed too quickly over the extended title because when I came to the end, I was surprised to see this was intended for part of instruction at the Jefferson founded University of Virginia, which he intended to include instruction in Anglo-Saxon as part of its curriculum.

I have not Jefferson’s apparent talent for picking up languages, but I remember reading about him harassing the supposed translator of Ossian for the original Gaelic texts (who always put him off because, of course, they didn’t exist).

I almost purchased a recent book about the University and its Jeffersonian founding, but better, I thought, to keep reading what the man himself wrote than what others have written about him, having read enough of the latter in recent years.

Surfacing


A beautiful book. Perhaps not as rapturously good as the Washington Post‘s review, but beautiful. A poet’s book, as befitting a collection of essays by a poet.

The tent pole pieces, which appear at the beginning (making the latter third a tad disappointing), are fabulous. They are both about visits to archaeological sites of Stone Age settlements. One is in Alaska and the results are inspiring local people to rediscover their cultural history. The other is in the Orkney Islands and is about to be destroyed by erosion. If nothing else, it makes you want to visit a dig site.

Autobiography Of Thomas Jefferson


This slim book, which or may not have been intended for publication, is quite modest and circumspect. He does not speak much of personal matters (alluding obliquely to his wife’s death) but much of legislative comings and goings and you would barely know he was key figure in American history if this was all you had.

A surprising volume of the Autobiography is dedicated to the back and forth of government ministers, popular leaders, and nobles during the early stages of the French Revolution. While now it is common to give Mari Antoinette the benefit of the doubt, he explicitly blames the Queen and says there would have been no violent revolution if not for her vicious counsel.

He ends upon his appointment as Secretary of State. If there is some finger pointing and political score settling, it might be within asides about monarchial tendencies among some individuals who might be Hamilton or Adams (I suspect Adams).