Published around 100 AD
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Annals, by Tacitus, is a history of the Roman Republic from the time of Tiberius (the second emperor) until Nero (the fifth emperor). The book is published in two volumes. The first covers the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. The second focuses exclusively on Nero.
I only read the first book closely, and skimmed the parts about Nero (you can only read so much about prostitutes in the palace). For most ancient books, I always read a physical copy when possible. By contrast, for more modern books, I listen to an audiobook when available.
Tacitus is quite boring. He covers page after page of discussions in the senate, mostly focusing on plots and breaches of protocol. His history covers the dirty political tricks of a long forgotten era. Furthermore, without extensive pre-existing knowledge of the period, this book is extremely difficult.
That being said, there are fascinating tid-bits that give insight into Roman life scattered here and there. The tidbits that most interested me were the ones that shed light into economic history. For example, there is an extensive discussion of a recession which occurred in 33 AD under Tiberius and the stimulus packages that were passed by the government to solve the problem.
Another interesting tidbit is when Germanicus visits Egypt. The geographical descriptions of Egypt seem strange, because as far as I know, Egypt never included places like Armenia. Besides that they are good. They also discuss the presence of the phoenix, a magic bird, in Egypt.
Finally, I enjoyed reading the intro blurb about how Augustus destroyed the republic covertly.
Overall, Tacitus strikes me as an arch-conservative. He is nostalgic for long-lost republican virtues, and laments the present state of empire. Despite this, his political thinking would have been quite mainstream by the standards of his time. He doesn’t seem like he is a particularly free thinker - if anything, he strikes me as someone who likes to complain about politics.
One last thing that struck me throughout the book is the importance of the Senate as an institution throughout the early empire. The emperors, especially Tiberius, are constantly struggling with the senate. The senate is often downplayed by modern historians, but seems like it was way more important than it is often made out to be.
Parts of the book are missing. Especially chapters about Caligula. To me, it seems like they were censored. If I had to guess, roughly one third of the book is missing. I think that what he wrote upset later emperors, who ordered the offending chapters to be removed. Later monks dutifully copied the text with the absent passages.
There are also some modern historiographical questions about the degree to which Tacitus may have been altered by later Christian authors to insert early references to Christians in the chapters concerning Nero. I have no idea if these historiographical questions are meaningful.
It was fascinating, but just too dull. It is worth skimming if you are into Roman history but probably not worth reading cover to cover the way that I did.
Claudius the God
By Robert Graves
Published in 1935
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Claudius the God is the sequel to “I, Claudius.” It covers Claudius’ reign as emperor, still written as a fake autobiography.
The book heavily features two new characters.
The first (briefly mentioned in the first) is Claudius’ wife Messalina. She turns out to be a slut, and constantly cheats on Claudius, ruining his life. She is much younger than she is, and manipulates him to obtain what she wants. Her manipulations result in seriously harming the Roman Empire.
The second new character is King Herod, King of the Jews. King Herod is a scoundrel with a heart of gold. Before Claudius is emperor, he helps him escape. During the unstable early days of his reign, he also helps the budding new emperor. However, during the later part of his reign, he becomes a rebel and a hindrance.
As in the first book, the events covered run roughly parallel to the real non-fiction account of the Roman historian Tacitus and Cassis Dio.
Claudius is corrupted by the immense power that he gets to wield as Roman Emperor. He eventually ends up himself becoming decadent, although he does not ruin the empire. He repeats many of the mistakes of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula - realizing that the latter had far less choice in the matter of their errors than he was led to believe before he was in power.
This book starts off very strong, much stronger than the first book. However, it starts getting slow as the narrative moves on. The end is very satisfying, ultimately concluding with Claudius becoming a God against his will.
The story ends with a real poem written by Seneca about Claudius’ ascension to become a God. The fiction narrative ends where the non-fiction narrative begins, coming full circle.
By Robert Graves
Published in 1934
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
I usually hate historical novels because I spend so much time studying history that I am immediately distracted by every single mistake or error in them. As a result, I can’t get immersed into fiction.
However, “I, Claudius” is so incredibly well researched and masterfully written that it did not bother me. It reads like a fake primary source, only slightly favored by the biases and perspective of an author writing in the 1930s.
The book tells the story of Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor who eventually restores the empire after the troubled reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. Claudius was handicapped, and likely had a cerebral palsy - but was nevertheless intelligent. Most of the real sources about his life were written by only two authors - Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
Graves successfully re-invests and re-imagines a plausible narrative for Claudius’ life, and gives him an incredibly plausible voice which he uses to tell the unlikely story of how he eventually became the Roman Emperor.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves Roman history. However, reading this book without some pre-existing knowledge or familiarity with how the Roman Empire operated in its early days might be a little bit difficult.
This is not only the best historical fiction that I have ever read but might also be one of the best fiction books that I have ever read in general.
I am eagerly looking forward to reading the sequel “Claudius the God” which covers his reign as emperor.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Updated Edition
By Ina May Gaskin
Published in March 4 2003
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
It’s been several months since my last book review - but I have a good excuse. My wife is pregnant, and that has preoccupied much of my mental focus. She recently read this book, and told me to read it too.
Ina May Gaskin is a midwife who has helped thousands of women give birth over the course of her long career. She decided to write this book to gather all of the lessons which she had learned over the course of her protracted career in one place.
The first half of the book is a collection of stories of different women who have all given birth; under very different circumstances. Many of the women had easy pregnancies. Others had extremely difficult pregnancies; and yet others gave birth to babies who died immediately. Some had abortions; others had irresponsible sex and became single moms; and some needed C-Sections.
Going through the chronology of the birth experiences of different women helped my wife, who is now pregnant. After reading that part of the book and also finding it helpful, I decided to read the rest.
The next quarter of the book is a “cookbook” style list of practical advice about various topics. It covers birth positions, ways to negotiate with hospital staff, and advice on whether or not mothers should seek medication. Because I am male and will never be pregnant, I found this part of the book to be less relevant.
Finally, the last quarter of the book focuses on several topics that should be of universal interest - even to non parents. Ina May discusses how modern technology is creating many new risks that pregnant mothers did not face in the past.
First, she points out that many historical midwives had very good success rates. My own studies of history seem to corroborate this - even in the early 1800s, cases of mothers dying during birth were very extremely rare (despite misconceptions created by corporate pop culture).
Then, she shows how the modern medical system removes many key parental rights. Mothers are cajoled and scared into taking drugs and using medical procedures that create unnecessary risks. Overmedicalization means that cesarean rates are very high - as high as 80% in some countries - despite the fact that only between 1% and 3% of mothers really need them. Finally, some drugs are known to cause extremely serious side effects to both babies and mothers.
Small things have a huge impact.
Many hospitals prevent women in labor from eating or drinking - despite overwhelming evidence that eating and drinking makes the process of giving birth much easier. This is done for purely historical reasons, when in the early 20th century, doctors sometimes gave women chloroform. Women using chloroform were at risk of vomiting, and suffocating. Although chloroform is no longer used, the old custom has remained.
Many hospitals also prevent women from moving. Some go as far as forcing mothers to lie down. Lying down is practical due to the physical layout of most hospitals; but most women cannot comfortably give birth lying down. Instead, there is significant evidence that suggests that women give birth more safely when moving.
The most important conclusion that the book draws is that the safest way to give birth is the most natural. Giving birth is not a medical procedure - it is a natural bodily function. Very few women actually need any drugs or treatments; and these often do more harm than good.
Looking at the last part of the books through the lens of economics has let me draw some conclusions which Ina May does not spell out.
On the corporate side of healthcare, insurance companies are very risk averse. Proving that a drug caused serious side effects can be difficult. By contrast, if a mother dies during childbirth, the cause of death is obvious. Insurance companies choose to shift blame and liability away from themselves, always opting for routes of treatment that cause less direct harm. The actual amount of harm is economically irrelevant as long as the assignment of blame is difficult.
All Western healthcare systems are at least, partially, socialistic. This means that governmental medical standards organizations have a disproportionate say. In a free market, mothers have all of the spending power. Under socialism, the government must make decisions about which kind of childbirth it will subsidize and which it will not. As a result, independent practitioners like Ina May Gaskin are often underfunded and hampered by rules and regulations.
Although Ina May Gaskin does not talk at all about politics - to me the situation seems quite clear. Our society has created an extremely dangerous environment for women who want to give birth. Small details have a huge impact - for example women need to be free to move or eat. Although death or the injury of infants is rare, it could be even rarer. Because of our current system, many women experience Cesarians, tearing, pain, or other injuries for no good reason.
I recommend this book to all pregnant women or anyone who has a pregnant wife, daughter, or sister in their life.
The Cygnus Key: The Denisovan Legacy, Göbekli Tepe, and the Birth of Egypt
By Andrew Collins
Published in May 2018
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Cygnus Key is a book that seemingly collects a jumble of ancient mysteries ranging from Denisovian technology, to pre-historic anatolians, to ancient Egyptians into a chaotic mash of ideas.
The beginning of the book is fascinating, giving a clear overview of Göbekli Tepe and explaining how many of the ideas found there are common throughout other sites inhabited by denisovans. He makes a fascinating argument that denisovans - pre-human hominids - were significantly more technologically and mathematically advanced than previously believed. Then, his narrative deteriorates into speculation about symbolism.
Most of the book is devoted to ancient symbolism and numerology. He makes many highly speculative guesses about what different building alignments and animal carvings may represent. In the absence of knowledge about the day to day lives of the people of these civilizations, they are nothing but guesses. Also, the topic of sacred geometry and star alignment isn’t of much interest to me.
If you are into the history of sacred geometry, then this book might be fascinating. It might also have some interest to people who are into the history of the development of mathematics. However, I found it quite dull.
This isn’t a bad book - it just isn’t a book for me. I read about halfway, then put it down and moved on.
Children of Time
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published in 2015
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Sometimes, you come across a book that is so good that you recommend it to everyone that you know - however, in cases where that book is fiction, describing why it needs to be read without spoiling the plot can be difficult. Children of Time was recommended to me by my wife Katarina, who has great taste in science fiction.
It is a story about evolutionary biology, the end of man, and the rise of a new intelligent species. The story manages to grab your attention and remain fast paced, despite happening over the course of several millennia.
I will not say more, out of fear of spoiling the surprises that you will encounter. When embarking on this great literary journey.
Let me say this: it is likely the best science fiction book that I have ever read.
The Anunnaki Chronicles
By Zecharia Sitchin
Published in September 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Zecharia Sitchin was an Israeli ancient aliens theorist. He was an expert in ancient languages, and could translate various early languages competently, from where he draws many of his ideas. This book is a compilation of his various writings by his grand niece.
Having read a large number of primary sources, mostly from the middle ages and antiquity, I have been shocked by the number of seeming anachronisms - there are all sorts of details which, to me, seem like they possibly could be alien. For this reason, I was attracted to this book.
What I was hoping to find was an unbiased catalog of all of the anachronisms, along with a variety of explanations for them - explanations that both favor and disfavor extraterrestrial or anachronistic explanations.
Instead, Sitchin has wild theories that go far beyond what can be borne out by the evidence. You can easily point to a Sumerian tablet and ask “how the hell did they know that there were at least 10 planets, when Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune were only discovered in the last 200 years thanks to telescopes?” and offer a wide variety of theories and explanations (aliens being one of them). Instead, Sitchin has very detailed timelines explaining that XYZ had a moon base, with clones, etc… His theories seem unsubstantiated and outlandish.
I also wish that he included his complete translations of primary sources, not just quotes out of context. Then I wish I could compare his translations of primary sources with those of other academics who do not believe in aliens.
This book makes for mediocre science fiction, but bad history. I am looking for a good ancient aliens book - but this is not it.
The Selfish Gene
By Richard Dawkins
Published in 1976 (updated in 1988 and 2006)
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Selfish Gene is an evolutionary biology book by Richard Dawkins where he argues that the gene, rather than the individual, is the basic unit upon which evolution occurs.
Dawkins is, sadly, most well known for his atheist activism. This book has nothing to do with atheism - he doesn’t even mention his religious beliefs. You can completely ignore Dawkins' atheism and appreciate this book nevertheless.
The idea that genes, rather than individuals or groups of individuals, are selected for is now uncontroversial. The implications are fascinating.
For example, Dawkins’ theory allows him to predict under what circumstances altruism will arise - notably when it benefits the transmission of one’s genes. The reason behind this is simple: genetic algorithms that did not embrace this specific kind of altruism died out.
Many non-breeding altruistic organisms - like ants that act as giant refrigerators for their peers - have genetic clones of themselves who breed. Others, such as the naked mole rats who live in colonies, need highly specialized roles. Some act as the specialized breeders, while most act as feeders for their breeding relatives.
Here, Dawkins points out that there are many non-genetic types of replicators. For example, ideas can replicate much like genes, and the same rules apply. This is the book where he coins the term “meme” to describe ideas which replicate pseudo genetically.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in dipping their toes into evolutionary biology. It may be old - but has stood the test of time. The updates provide more information on details but do not detract from the core. Its age is all the more proof of its incredible value.
By Simon Mann
Published in September 2012
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Cry Havoc is the story of Simon Mann, one of the executives of the 1990s South African mercenary outfit called “Executive Outcomes.”
The book details how he became a mercenary, the campaigns he fought in, and his eventual imprisonment and capture.
Simon Mann was a British soldier who served with the SAS - one of the UK’s most elite units. He fought for the British army in Northern Ireland and in the Gulf War. In 1991, he left the army to work in oil and gas.
Mann was working on an oil and gas project in Angola, when a group of rebels captured his project. He was angered - rather than letting his project fall apart, he decided to fight back. He co-founded Executive Outcomes, and eventually defeated the Angolan rebels. Later, he would help defeat an army of rebels in Sierra Leone, ending an insurgency in a matter of weeks which the UN had struggled with for decades.
By the late 1990s, Executive Outcomes had become one of the largest and most successful mercenary outfits in the world. His men served on fields across Africa, as well as far flung places like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
Everything would come crashing down in 2004, when he was hired to stage a coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea by Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark Thatcher. The coup fails - Mann is arrested on his way to Equatorial Guinea in Zimbabwe.
He is captured, tortured, and forced to sign a confession letter. He then spends five years in Chikurubi, Zimbabwe’s hardest prison. The last half of the book focuses on his harrowing time in jail. Eventually, he is sent back to Equatorial Guinea, where he stands trial, and helps the government identify everyone who had been responsible for the coup four years earlier. The president pardons him in exchange for his corporation.
He returns to the UK, but finds it hard to adjust himself to life after Chikurubi. To cope, he decides to write this book.
I enjoyed the writing style. This book is a must-read for any fools thinking of joining a mercenary outfit (I know a few). Even the CEOs of mercenary companies, like Mann, barely make any money. In addition to being incredibly hard and dangerous, it doesn’t pay well. The only ones making money are the ones hiring the mercenaries - the mercenaries themselves are the losers.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about privatized warfare, and modern African politics.
The Cheese and the Worms
By Carlo Ginzburg
Published in 1976
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The content of the book is fascinating, but the writing is terrible.
Academic writing is generally bad; translated books are generally bad; old writing is generally bad. This is an old academic book written in Italian - and it was a slog. Thankfully, it wasn’t very long.
In the late 1500s, an Italian miller called Menocchio is arrested for heresy and interrogated by the inquisition. As a result of these legal proceedings, there is an extensive written record about Menocchio’s world view.
Menocchio was a literate peasant who taught himself how to read and write. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, he obtained a few dozen books. His readings allowed him to develop a wide variety of unusual political and religious beliefs. Preaching his newfound beliefs to his peasant peers got him in trouble, and he was eventually arrested and interogated for several months.
Menocchio’s story reflects a wide political and ideological movement among lower class peasants in late 1500s Europe. These peasants combined the written word (which they now had access to) with older oral traditions. They create a wide variety of alternative views that go against the church’s ancient teachings. The authorities tried to clamp down.
Right now, I live in an era where the forces of the mainstream are attempting to censor and wipe out new alternative views that have emerged thanks to the internet. Nothing scares me more than the repression of medical quacks, politically incorrect views, and activists trying to prevent war with Russia. If I were to design a religion, then I would classify censorship as one of the three worst sins alongside rape and murder.
I emphasize with Menocchio. He came to unusual views through the new technology of the printing press; and lacked a formal education. I am a modern day Menocchio - I came to my views through the internet and through my own readings. Like Menocchio, I can feel the predatory glares of the thought police at my back and cannot help but fear that one day I may be repressed just like him.
This book was objectively pretty bad. Roughly 15% of the book is literally just the professor thanking people and talking about how he started his research. Another 15% is academic theorizing that is too abstract to matter. While the subject matter is fascinating, the writing is so terrible that I cannot recommend this book.
I hope that a more competent author re-examines Menocchio’s life, and writes a book for a non-academic audience. If that happens, then I will strongly recommend this book.
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