Review Grab Bag # 4

In a previous post this year, I discussed the Abbott brothers’ “Makers of History” series. At the time, I had only read the biography of Alexander the Great. Throughout the rest of the year, I continued to read more books in the series. The remarks I made about Alexander the Great more or less hold true for all these books: they are written for young people (the authors gave the age range of 15-25 years old), they are general and broad, and they are well-written and exciting to read. The purpose of these books is to build a big-picture view of the great people and events in history that can be filled in later with more thorough study. Below, I’m just going to make brief remarks about anything that struck me in particular about each of the books:

Romulus by Jacob Abbott

This was the weakest book that I’ve read in this series. Let’s face it; there isn’t much historical information about Romulus, or many sources from which to draw information. As such, the author discusses the legendary character of the stories he is about to tell and then starts with the birth of Aeneas and continues through the death of Romulus. Essentially this is nothing more than a summary of the Aeneid and the first book of Livy. Nothing of great interest here.

3/5 stars

Hannibal by Jacob Abbott

I really enjoyed this one. I’ve read books XXI-XXX of Livy’s history which covers the Second Punic War in which Hannibal was the main player. In this way most of this book was just useful review for me. However, Abbott also details what happened to Hannibal after the Punic War and how he met his end. It was very interesting and reminded me of Gandalf’s statement about Saruman in Lord of the Rings, “You might yet have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you chose to stay, and gnaw the ends of your old plots.” Hannibal did a lot of plot knowing at the end of his life.

4/5 stars

Julius Caesar Jacob Abbott

This was a competent overview of Caesar’s life. One of the great benefits of these books is to see how the story of one man fits together with the other events in his lifetime. I especially liked seeing how Caesar was tied to the preceding struggle between Marius and Sulla and how it affected the public’s perception of him. Beware the Ides of March!

4/5 stars

Cleopatra by Jacob Abbott

This was a really great book. It covers some of the same material as the Julius Caesar bio, but learning about Cleopatra’s family tree and the terrible, corrupt people from whom she descended helped to understand her story a lot better. Which reminds me of a joke: Q. What was the most difficult legal question for the Ptolemies of Egypt? A. If I divorce her, is she still my sister?

5/5 stars

William the Conqueror by Jacob Abbott

Except for the events leading directly up to the Battle of Hastings this was all new to me. A good overview from Rollo the Dane to the end of William’s life.

4/5 stars

Richard I by Jacob Abbott

This was simply fascinating. The history of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother, shows just what a powerful, resourceful, and fairly corrupt woman could accomplish in those days. With regard to Richard’s father, Henry, it’s amazing to what depths a corrupt king could hold on to power. While some biographers hold Richard I up as a saint, and some excoriate him as a scoundrel, Abbott does a good job of presenting an unbiased view of his life. Richard comes across as sympathetic, at least to me, despite his many, many faults. This book also served to show me how little resemblance a certain G.A. Henty book bears to actually history.

5/5 stars

Margaret of Anjou by Jacob Abbott

Jacob Abbott takes the War of the Roses and makes it easy to understand, while not dumbing it down. Is there any higher praise I can give?

4/5 stars

Richard III by Jacob Abbott

This one obviously covers a lot of the same material as the Margaret of Anjou book. Richard was the younger brother of Edward who defeated Margaret’s husband Henry VI and took his throne. Contra Shakespeare, Richard III was not a deformed hunchback, was not any more of a scoundrel than his brothers or any of the Lancastrians for that matter, and probably didn’t have the two princes murdered.

4/5 stars

Queen Elizabeth by Jacob Abbott

Wow, what a rough life. I certainly would not have wanted to be an heir to the throne after Henry VIII. Not much to say about this one other than the fact that Elizabeth was intelligent, strong, and sometimes cruel. This is a balanced and engaging portrait of Good Queen Bess.

Mary Queen of Scots by Jacob Abbott
I don’t care if you are a Protestant; if you don’t feel sympathy for Mary Queen of Scots, you’re not human. It’s amazing how Abbott, a Protestant, is able to display such even-handedness when dealing with the issues surrounding the fight between Protestantism and Catholicism in Scotland and England.

4/5 stars

Charles I by Jacob Abbott

And that, children, is where Presbyterians come from… This was a very interesting history. Charles doesn’t come across necessarily as a bad man, but an incompetent man. It cost him his head.

4/5 stars

Peter the Great by Jacob Abbott

This was absolutely fascinating. I know nothing about Russian history prior to Tsar Nicholas II and the Revolution. The life of Peter the Great is full of political intrigue, schemes, and murders. However, Peter managed to create a navy for Russia and to move Russia closer to the Western world. This legacy has left mixed results.

4/5 stars

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