Koh-i-Noor: William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

★★★½

Back at the beginning of August, I used my summer holidays to play ‘tourist’ in London. My first stop was the Tower of London and, among the ravens, armour and tales of bloody executions, I popped in to see the Crown Jewels. At that point I was already aware of this new history of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and wanted to see it for myself. I discovered, as many have before me, that its legend casts a far larger shadow than its reality. Indeed, it looks almost modest alongside the Cullinan I Diamond that sits atop the monarch’s sceptre, or the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown. So what was it about this rather unassuming diamond that captured the imagination of generations? With Dalrymple and Anand as my guides, I embarked on an engaging tale of blood, war, ambition, extravagance and conquest.

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The Battle of Salamis: Barry Strauss

★★★★

The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization

Just before dawn on 25 September 480 BC, a Persian armada sailed out of the harbour at Phaleron, just along the coast from Athens. The ships took up position at the entrance to some narrow straits between the Greek mainland and an island called Salamis, where the Greeks had taken refuge. Their fragile alliance, so the Persians had been told, was on the brink of collapse. All they needed was to provoke panic: the Greeks would crumble. And… well, it didn’t quite happen as planned. What unfolded over the next twelve hours was one of the greatest sea-battles of antiquity, and Barry Strauss’s book brings it to pulsing, vivid life. This isn’t a story of nautical jargon and dry-as-dust tactics: it’s swashbuckling of the first order, set against a mighty clash of civilisations, and populated by a cast of characters so colourful that it’s easy to forget it all actually happened.

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Natalie Zemon Davis

★★★★

In 1560 Jean de Coras, judge of the Parlement of Toulouse, found himself faced with an extraordinary case which had come up on appeal from the court at Rieux. A woman, Bertrande de Rols, claimed that the man with whom she had lived for four years was not, in fact her husband Martin Guerre, but an impostor. The husband himself denied the charges and claimed that his wife was being unwillingly coerced by his avaricious uncle, who hoped to get his hands on the family inheritance. This alone would have offered de Coras an intriguing case, but the complex tale of Martin Guerre presently developed an unexpected twist that elevated it into one of the most fascinating courtroom dramas in history. Natalie Zemon Davis’s reconstruction is a classic of modern historical writing, offering an irresistible glimpse of the social and sexual mores of the Renaissance.

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Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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The Ladies of Llangollen: Elizabeth Mavor

★★★★

Like the Chevalier d’Eon, the Ladies of Llangollen came my way thanks to a work project. When trying to find an introduction to their lives, I judged that Elizabeth Mavor’s book seemed the best option, despite now coming across as slightly dated (it was published in 1971). Yet, for all that, it presents a thorough and sensitive discussion of these two remarkable women, who created an idyllic lifestyle together on their own terms and in defiance of social convention. Drawing on the Ladies’ own journals and correspondence, along with the letters of their immediate circle, newspaper reports and other documents, Mavor’s book isn’t just the sound introduction I was looking for, but an admirably unbiased and scrupulously fair double biography.

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The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

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Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: Gary Kates

★★★★½

A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

When I reviewed The Chevalier back in June last year, I was interested in the life of the Chevalier d’Eon but didn’t know much beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia. Since then, life has played one of its serendipitous little jokes on me. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the Chevalier in my professional capacity, which means that I’ve spent the last month poring over books written both by and about him. My experience has emphasised exactly how inaccurate The Chevalier is (horribly!), but has also revealed the full complexity of this utterly fascinating life. And, if you want to get the facts, this book is the place to start.

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Thomas More: John Guy

★★★★

A very brief history

I’ve always wanted to like Thomas More, largely thanks to Hans Holbein’s magnificent portrait. It offers such an appealingly naturalistic image of the man. More is intense, slightly homely with that overlarge nose, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirked benevolently at the corner. He hasn’t shaved: his jaw is scattered with soft grey bristles. The red velvet and fur-trimmed cloak look incongruous: you get the impression he’s indifferent to worldly finery, his mind resolutely fixed on higher things. We almost forget the artist’s craft: we treat the portrait as a photograph, a direct record of the man. But art isn’t like that. And nor is history. The problem is that history has left us so many Mores – the principled objector; the humanist; the saint; the idealistic author of Utopia; the burner of heretics. How can we find our way through the mire? Fortunately this short, lucid and lively book offers a crash course in all things More – and our guide is one of the world’s foremost Tudor historians.

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Daughter of Heaven: Nigel Cawthorne

★★★

The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China

My recent Chinese escapades left me with a burning desire to find out more about the country’s history and culture, so I couldn’t resist this biography of Wu Chao, a remarkable woman in the 7th century who clawed her way up from the status of a lowly concubine to become Emperor of China in her own right. She was, predictably, a fascinating character and her court, in its intrigues, corruption and eventual dissipation, makes the worst excesses of Westeros look like a village fete. Her rise and fall are worthy of a Greek tragedy but, alas, this book isn’t the best way for a newcomer to encounter her story.

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Defacing the Past

Head of Germanicus

Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome

(British Museum, London, until 7 May 2017, Room 69a)

We all know what it means to deface something, but pause a moment and think about the word in greater detail: to de-face, to erase identity, to obliterate the memory of a person. It is one of the most profound punishments that history can inflict, for it either condemns a man to oblivion or associates him eternally with the shame of his downfall. This small but carefully curated show, focusing on coins and medals with some pieces of sculpture, looks at how defacement was used as a political punishment in Ancient Rome, and how it grew out of preexisting traditions of damnatio memoriae that have continued in various forms right up to the present day.

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