Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Twelve Who Ruled; Rome: A History in Seven Sackings; & Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium

twelve who ruled book coverI. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of The Terror in the French Revolution [1941] by R.R. Palmer – ★★★★1/2

This book may be dated, but it did not lose any of its power from the time it was first published in 1941, and was re-issued many times (the last edition dates to 2013). In this book, R. R. Palmer looks at one particular time period in the history of France, and its Revolution – the year 1793-1974. But, what a year that was! Chaotic, unbelievable, bordering fantastical. After the death of Louis XVI, twelve people (virtually strangers to each other) started to govern the country and their slide into dictatorship gave the name to the year of their rule – The Year of the Terror. The year’s main symbol – the guillotine, operated alongside democratic ideas put in speeches and on paper. France has not seen anything like that before or since. Palmer’s engaging, illuminating account traces the months leading to the Year of the Terror, then focuses on the twelve men in charge of the country. The narrative further details the twelve men’s town and country policies, laws and actions, as they purported to stand for liberty, democracy, unity, justice and peace, but, actually, became the embodiment of the opposite. Foreign and civil wars, rebellions within and outside the country, as well as economic disasters, growing paranoia and the inability to maintain the central rule, are just some of the challenges that faced the twelve men after they were left in change of the country under the innocuous name “The Committee of Public Safety”.  

Caricature of the Members of the Committee of Public Safety

We start the account with the fifth summer of the Revolution, when the king’s death has already caused divisions among the people of the country; when enemies from abroad have already grown stronger; and when economic insecurity has accelerated  – “Anarchy within, invasion without. A country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain. Revolution at its height. War. Inflation. Hunger. Fear. Hate. Sabotage. Fantastic Hopes. Boundless idealism. And the horrible knowledge, for the men in power, that if they failed they would die as criminals, murderers of the king...” [Palmer, 1941/89: 5]. The members of the so-called Forth Committee were the following twelve men (nearly all from the Mountain political group): (1) Maximilien Robespierre, (2) Lazare Carnot, (3) Bertrand Barere, (4) Georges Couthon, (5) Andre Saint-Andre, (6) Jean-Marie D’Herbois, (7) Jean-Nicholas Billaud-Varenne, (8) Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, (9) Robert Lindet, (10) Prieur of the Cote-d’Or, (11) Marie-Jean Herault de Sechelles, and (12) Prieur of the Marne. The pressure on them must have been immense, with one contributing factor being that “there was not in France in 1973 a true majority in favour of anything, except to drive out the foreigners, and no majority to agree on precisely how that could be done” [Palmer, 1941/89: 42].

The great thing about Palmer’s book is that it describes the events that took place after the death of the king in a very engaging manner. The author describes scenes and includes speeches which must have taken place at that time, enabling us to step into the then chaotic and complex world of politics and to imagine what it must have felt like to walk the streets of Paris at that time or hear one of the twelve leading men give their speeches to an assembly of people. Our intrigue will be justified: the secrecy of the Committee’s meetings, its eccentric. intellectual and privileged members (some privately in dispute with each other, growing distrustful of each other), and the ardent idealism that reigned in the hearts of some of them – everything was at odds with the real, “on the ground” situation in the country. The setting up of the Revolutionary Army, the emergence of different fractions and the extraordinary powers that were conferred on the Committee’s individual members only made the situation worse. We get to know about this and about much more as Palmer also takes us to the far-off concerns of France and we witness the situations in Puy-de-Dome, Alsace, Lyon (its doom) and in Brittany. The on and off efforts to “dechristianise” the French population by the Committee, as well as its effort to abolish the Christian calendar and make their own, are some of the eccentric actions that demonstrate the audacity of the ruling twelve to try to erase the past of the country and begin anew. 

Perhaps it is right to think that Palmer is a bit too sympathetic to the men he describes, and his account could have included more concrete examples. However, the book can still be considered one of the most informative out there on this period in the French history. In the book, we focus our attention on the men in question, as well as on other emerging leading figures as the events rush forward, seemingly with the speed of light, in Palmer’s story. Palmer also makes sure that his account in seen in a broader context of other elements that were ongoing at the same time in the Republic, and finally illuminates the reasons that precipitated the Committee’s downfall

Rome Book CoverII. Rome: A History in Seven Sackings [2017] by Matthew Kneale – ★★★★1/2

“…I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life…Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

Rome…the Eternal City. A city-legend. Matthew Kneale (the author of English Passengers) begins his account of the capital of Italy with these words – “There is no city like Rome” [2017: 1]. It is true. History is everywhere in Rome –  one breaths it with the air and feels it in the walls. Rome also proved to be one of the most lasting cities in the world, enduring many natural disasters and…sackings. Rome’s historical sackings are the topic of Kneale’s book. He looks at the history of Rome through seven particular sackings (from Gauls to the Nazis) and we begin to understand how wars and enemy invasions shaped the city and contributed to it becoming what it is today. 

The author looks at seven sackings of Rome – by (1) Gauls, (2) Goths, (3) “More Goths”, (4) Normans, (5) Spanish and Lutherans, (6) French and, finally, (7) Nazis. With each of these sackings, Kneale first (i) looks at who the enemy was and what their positions were just before advancing on the city; then (ii) talks about the city itself, its economic situation, citizens and their way of life (everything from architecture to the state of medicine), just before the invasion; and, finally, (iii) talks about the sacking itself [Matthew Kneale, 2017: 2]. One of the great things about this book is how entertaining it is – Kneale writes in an engaging manner, and reading about the history feels like reading some exciting novel. The author dispenses with myths and misconceptions about Rome, revealing “true” Rome. Another merit of this book is that the author clearly shows the balance between warfare and civil life that existed at numerous times throughout history, and how that balance changed with each sacking. After all, people learn from history. 

As the book is structured in a certain manner, the author has to include certain events and probably does not have time to talk about other elements/events to fit his structure. Another weakness is that Kneale sometimes makes references to more recent politics, which are distracting and needless, such as to the “American-style popular patriotism” on page thirteen or to “Barack Obama” on page twenty-two.

Matthew Kneale’s fifteen-year research culminated in a very ambitious book, which is clearly-structured, well-written and entertaining to read. The scope of the book is immense. For example, there is as much in this book about the life and warfare in Ancient Rome, as about that Rome which was presented to the eyes of the Nazis in 1943. It is fascinating to read about the transformation of Rome through the sackings over hundreds and hundreds of years, and if you have even a slightest interest in the subject, this is a book to read.

Milk of Paradise Book CoverIII. Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium [2018] by Lucy Inglis – ★★1/2

This book was my most disappointing read of this August, and I am very interested in the subject matter. Lucy Inglis, a historian, traces the history of opium from its presumed cultivation in ancient Mesopotamia to the present day situation in Afghanistan and opium’s current synthetic modifications. Although the book provides a more or less good overview of the history of opium, it is still the victim of its own ambition – Lucy Inglis’s account is rushed, overwhelming and surprisingly chaotic given how organised and chronological she undoubtedly wanted the book to be. 

Lucy Inglis divides her book into three parts: (i) “a history of the opium poppy, its earliest relationships with mankind“; (ii) “the isolation of morphine from opium and the revolutionary political and scientific changes of the nineteenth century”; and (iii) the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries developments, “from the first years of commercially available heroin to the present-day US opioid crisis trade…and present heroin wars” [Lucy Inglis, 2018: xxi]. The book sounds organised, but it may very soon overwhelm the reader with its scope, details, examples and digressions. The author jumps frequently from topic to topic and from event to event, focusing on some random examples at times, before quickly moving to the next period in time. For example, touching briefly on the Graeco-Roman empire and what poppy might have symbolised there, the author then talks of Islam, before concluding later on that “pain theory is central to the history of opium” [Inglis, 2018: 43]. It is as though Inglis is in some great haste and wants to make her observations on many time periods and seemingly random events (from Marco Polo to ancient anaesthetics) because of the fear of leaving out something important. However, the result of this “effort” is that only the randomness of her observations and her lack of prioritisation shine through.

To be fair, China is one country Lucy Inglis does focus on – but that is to be expected. “Opium is associated inexplicably with the history of China” [Lucy Inglis, 2018: 26], proclaims the author as though divulging to us some higher, unknown truth. A very brief history of the Silk Road is then given before the author talks of the East India Company and about the rise of Hong Kong. After dealing with that period rather quickly and oddly, the author then wastes no time talking about the laudanum epidemic in Britain (among Romantic poets, of course); about the invention of the hypodermic needle in the nineteenth century; and about the present heroin wars (organised crime implications). It does not help that Inglis’s language is factual and hardly engaging, making her account often a rather dull read.

Though well-researched and well-intended, Milk of Paradise is still a book that is more forgettable than its fascinating topic warrants. The book ends up to be a very rushed and cursory account of the history of opium, some of which the reader may have heard of already and another part that is too flimsily presented for the reader to read carefully and be engrossed.


16 thoughts on “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Twelve Who Ruled; Rome: A History in Seven Sackings; & Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium

    1. Thank you! You may enjoy Inglis’ book, but it was definitely not for me. On my TBR list I have another book about opium – “Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream” by Thomas Dormandy – that covers pretty much the same ground as the book by Inglis, so I still hope to read an account on the history of opium I will enjoy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for the honest review of the opium book. It has been on my list for a while. Whenever I start a new book and interest starts to wane I always wonder if it’s just me or not. So will try this and not feel guilty if it’s not a page-turner.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are welcome! It is worth a try – the book does provide some interesting information, but it is also true that it attempts way too much – a history of everything (in relation to opium) and virtually nothing (in particular), I would even say.


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