Spanish history books

Book review: The Roman Wars in Spain

the roman wars in spain daniel varga

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Review The Roman Wars in Spain

Daniel Varga’s ‘The Roman Wars in Spain: The Military Confrontation with Guerrilla Warfare‘ is a book that focuses on the military aspects of the long Roman conquest of Hispania. Daniel Varga analyzes the strategies and tactics of both the Roman side and the many different native tribes and chiefdoms that fought the Romans. The author uses both literary sources and recent archeological findings, and he examines how the wars in the Iberian Peninsula changed the organization, tactics and equipment of the Roman armies.

This is what buyers of the book said on Amazon:

This is an interesting, mostly valuable and, at times, fascinating book about the Roman wars in Spain over a period of almost two centuries, from the end of the Second Punic War down to the final subjugation of the Galicians, Asturians and Cantabrians during the reign of Augustus. Drawn from the author’s PhD thesis, it seeks to explain why it took so long for the Roman to conquer and “pacify” Iberia, but also to what extent these long and gruelling wars influenced both the development and the equipment of the Roman army.

The book contains a reasonably good – and often a very good – narrative of the numerous conflicts across the whole period, despite a few repetitions. At times, however, the analysis can be a bit unconvincing, partly because the author tends to go too far in seeking to ascribe each and every change in the Roman Army to the influence of the Spanish conflicts. Another limit is that the author’s statement about the Iberian tactics being so problematic for the Romans, and the causes of such problems, are not always clear.

All of the main points are made and well made. However, the author gives the impression of having tried, but not entirely succeeded, to ascribe the Roman armies’ difficulties to a single main cause. The first disadvantage that the Romans had to cope with was the largely mountainous and often forested terrain which tended to put Roman legionaries at a disadvantage against a more mobile and more lightly equipped enemy. This is probably the main reason explaining Rome’s difficulties and numerous defeats. A second point, which is also made, is that Rome’s armies were often commanded by second class or even mediocre generals who lead themselves and their armies be lured onto unfavourable terrain and ambushed. While true, the author does not take into consideration that not all Iberian or Lusitanian warlords were of the same calibre as Viriathus or as the Roman “renegade” general Sertorius.

A more disputable contention is the point that the Iberian and Lusitanian presented a unique challenge among Rome’s enemies in that they were capable of fighting successfully both a guerrilla war and a more “conventional” one with pitched battles. I found this point somewhat controversial.
While the point is correct, strictly speaking, because Iberian and Lusitanian armies were indeed able to fight both “conventionally” and “unconventionally”, they do not seem to have presented the same kind of challenges to Roman armies when fighting the kind of warfare in which the latter excelled. In fact, there seem to have been few pitched battles lost by Roman armies when fighting on level ground, unless such armies had been previously weakened and morally affected by guerrilla warfare and ambushes.

Then there are also other not entirely convincing points made by the author. The traditional view is that, despite all their difficulties, the Romans won their wars through attrition and because of their ability to draw on their superior reserves of manpower. The author rightly challenges this view because it is a bit of an over-simplification. One of the reasons for the time taken to conquer the whole peninsula was that Rome prioritised – and often had to prioritise – other fronts, such as wars in the Hellenistic East, Africa or Gaul during the Second and the First century. The other reason is the alleged difficulties in recruiting sufficient troops for fighting in Spain.

There is clearly some value in these elements and they are both to some extent sustained by the written sources. The problem, however, is that the author gives the impression of exaggerating the points at times. He also gives the somewhat misleading impression that the Roman Senate deliberately chose to prioritise wars in the East, and that these were more popular because the wars were easier to win and the plunder that could be expected was more abundant. While the later point may be correct to some extent, at least once the silver mines of Southern Spain had been secured by Rome; it would be a mistake to believe that the wars against Macedonia and the Seleucids were deemed “easy” just because the Roman victories turned out to be decisive. In fact, Roman senators and generals were rather concerned, not to say nervous, when having to face pike phalanxes, heavy cavalry and elephants and the victories that they won were more closely fought than what is generally believed or even admitted by some of the (Roman, of course) sources.

Finally, there are also a handful of glitches and questionable statements which could perhaps have been corrected through a more thorough editing process. Here are just two examples. One is to mention that “the Roman army was organised according to the Macedonian phalanx formation” until the introduction of manipular legions. Instead of “Macedonian phalanx formation”, the reader should understand “Greek hoplite phalanx formation”, especially since the reference is to the fifth century – a time where Macedonians did not fight in phalanx formation at all – and since the Romans never used pike formations during the Republic. A second questionable statement is that the Romans, at a disadvantage when fighting over broken and/or forested terrain “eventually learned”. They did develop and use more cavalry and more auxiliary units to mitigate the vulnerability of heavy infantry over broken terrain or forests. However, if anything, the persistence of Roman disasters and defeats when Roman forces when ambushed, mauled or even destroyed when fighting under such conditions – think of the annihilation of Varus and his legions in Germany in 9 AD, or the near destruction of the Ninth legion during the revolt of Boudicea, both of which happened well after Spain was pacified – should lead to qualify such a statement.

Four stars.” – JPS

Lots of scholarly errors, such as incorrect info, wrong dates, etc. Not enough maps, I shouldn’t have to use the internet to look for maps to follow the terrain the book describes. The book skips around a lot, isn’t chronological organized, makes it very confusing to read.

This book should not have been published without much more editing.” – Chelsie Steinhauser

Summary of reviews: reviews are mixed, with an average 3/5 stars at the moment of the writing of this article. Criticism mainly comes from some wrong dates and information, the editing of the book and the quite scholarly nature of the book, even though it’s a short book. The positive aspects of the book are the good analysis the author makes about the causes that made the conquest of Hispania so long and how the wars in Spain changed the Roman army.

Book review: The Mercenary Mediterranean

cover the mercenary mediterranean

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Review The Mercenary Mediterranean

Hussein Fancy’s The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon presents the complexity of Christian and Muslim relationships, specifically talking about the Muslim mercenaries who served the Christian Crown of Aragon. This challenges the black-and-white perception that we sometimes have while reading about Medieval Spain.

These are some quotes extracted from academic reviews of the book:

“Fancy has put forward a deeply learned and beautifully woven argument, in a thought-provoking and discomforting study that constitutes a major contribution to the history of medieval Spain.” – American Historical Review

“Readers are confronted with multilayered loyalties, military needs, and powerful ambitions that defy the habitual designations of reconquest, crusade, and jihad to this kind of state policy making. . . . Highly recommended.” – Choice

“Fascinating. . . . The Mercenary Mediterranean has made a remarkable number of major contributions . . . and offers valuable lessons for any scholar interested in medieval ethno-religious relations, royal/imperial authority, or the political history of the western Mediterranean.” – Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies

“The Archive of the Crown of Aragon has served as a reliable source for scholars to produce groundbreaking studies on interfaith relations. To a list that includes Burns, Boswell, Nirenberg, and others, we must add Hussein Fancy, whose present volume will be essential reading not only for the discipline of interfaith relations, but of religious history as well.”- Medieval Encounters

“Like David Nirenberg’s now-classic Communities of Violence and Olivia Remie Constable’s vital work in this area, The Mercenary Mediterranean will be of immense importance to historians of medieval Iberia. Original and intellectually ambitious, this book will likely become a landmark for scholars in the field, placing Fancy at the forefront of the new generation of Mediterraneanists working in medieval literary and cultural studies.” – Vincent Barletta, Stanford University

The Mercenary Mediterranean fundamentally advances our understanding of soldiers recruited from North Africa to fight for the Crown of Aragon. More than just another example of border-crossing or the malleability of religious identity, the case of the jenets demonstrates the paradoxes and strangeness of medieval warfare and faith. Fancy argues convincingly that religion, far from being shoved aside by other factors, remains central to comprehending warfare, cultural conflict, cultural rapprochement and ideas of empire. This is among the most important and thought-provoking books on Mediterranean and Iberian history of recent years.” – Paul Freedman, Yale University

“Fancy begins this extraordinary journey with a pawned sword and five men on mules at the borders of Valencia. By its end he has ranged across mountain, sea, and desert, across centuries and languages, in pursuit–like some relentless historical posse–of mercenary bands of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. His narrative is everywhere astonishing, as he shows us how medieval power was woven out of their migrations across the western Mediterranean, and in the process makes us question the nature of our own modern world.” – David Nirenberg, University of Chicago

Summary of reviews: all the academic reviews signal how thought-provoking The Mercenary Mediterranean is, although without making unfounded revisionist claims. It’s very recommended if you want to learn a specific case of interfaith relations of Medieval Spain.

Book review: Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

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Review Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain is a book written by Philip Matyszak where the author tells the story of the epic struggle between Sertorius and Sulla to control the Roman Republic, a civil war that was a prelude of the end of the Republic. The Sertorian War developed in Hispania and there Sertorius made alliances with the natives, especially the Lusitanians, and used guerrilla tactics to defeat larger Roman legions. I talk about the Sertorian War in episode 7, Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance.

This is what customers say on Amazon:

“I am grateful that there are authors such as Matyzsak to write books like this, and publishers such as Pen and Sword to publish them. Considering the scarcity of sources on the topic, as Matyzak recognizes in the introduction, he still does an excellent job of using everything available to craft as complete account as possible on the career of the Roman rebel. A book like this is useful for those who want to learn more about Sertorius, but who have neither the time nor expertise to gather all the material together to form a thorough portrait. Although the author has written many books on ancient Rome, this is the first I have ever read. I am now looking forward to reading his next book on the Social War, and perhaps some of his previous titles as well.

The book has ten chapters and is a short read, about 180 pages. Besides the life and career of the man himself, the author also includes a brief summary of the history of Roman rule from the time of Scipio Africanus to the time of Sertorius, and includes a survey of different tribes living in Iberia. The last chapter also follows the remnants of Sertorius’ troops as they continue their struggles for and against Rome in later wars up to the time of Augustus.” – Luis A. Hernández

The book details the Sertorian War in Spain between populated and coordinates forces. The continuation of the Roman Revolution in Spain provides powerful insights into the issues and personalities that drove this great conflict. Quintus Sertorius is properly portrayed by using Plutarch and Sallust as the tragic genius, defeating superior forces through brilliant leadership, but ultimately unable to overcome imperial resources. The book also analyses the strategies of Roman assimilation and their profound consequences. It is a very good read!!!” – José Gómez-Rivera

And this is what users of Goodreads say:

As far as tragic historical figures go, Sertorius must rank among the top. Through no fault of his own, he wound up on the wrong side of history on multiple occasions, finding himself on the losing side of politics and civil wars.

Matyszak is explicit in stating his unequivocal opinion that Sertorius was a military genius of the highest order. At each mention of his prowess (dealing with other generals accomplished in their own right the way a professional athlete would beat an amateur) the reader is left wondering what could have been had Sertorius made different allegiances, or been born in a happier time. Surely, a general of his caliber could have been one of Rome’s greatest heroes rather than one of its most notorious rebels. In an era where lesser generals made names for themselves with epic conquests for the Republic Sertorius could have achieved a great deal for the state.

The author does a wonderful job of weaving the patchwork sources into a coherent narrative, and when the sources are silent he does well to fill in the blanks and inform the reader of the logic behind his assumptions. For a book that could easily fall into hero-worship, Matyszak does excellently to avoid the blunder of excusing the atrocities committed by Sertorius however tame they might be relative to his contemporaries.

Any story about a supremely tragic and dramatic figure is attractive to a wide audience, and as this is one of most readable books on Sertorius I would highly recommend it. The story is essentially the tale of one man against the world in a battle he knew he would inevitably lose. In the forward Matyszak says that Sertorius’ story should serve as an example to give hope to the hopeless, but I believe it would be more accurate to say that his story should serve as an example of how to preserve one’s dignity in the face of hopelessness.” – Daniel

A fascinating and generally balanced account of the Roman general who fled to Spain after Sulla mounted a coup in Rome, and largely controlled the Spanish peninsula in the 70s BC, resisting Roman armies until he was assassinated. My main reservations are that in the first part of the book, Philip Matyszak too uncritically accepts some of the belittling of the great general Marius in some of the Roman sources, and is also a bit uncritical in accepting accounts of Sertorius’s alleged change of character for the worse in his final year of life.” – Michael Cayley

Summary of reviews: reviews are generally positive, remarking how narrative the story is and the analysis that Matyszak gives focused on the natives. Some of the critics say that the author praises maybe too much Sertorius and takes for granted that Sertorius knew he was going to lose in the last year of his life.

Book review: Caliphs and Kings

caliphs and kings roger collins

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Review Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031

Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031 is one of the works of Hispanist Roger Collins on Medieval Spain. Roger Collins talks about the different Medieval states of the Iberian Peninsula before the disintegration of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba. This includes chapters focused on the Caliphate of Cordoba, the Kingdom of Asturias, the Kingdom of Leon, the County of Castile, the Counties of the Pyrenees and the Kingdom of Navarre. But not everything is about politics, in this book Roger Collins also debunks the theory that Muslim-dominated Spain was a place of religious tolerance and harmony between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Nonetheless, he also dmystifies some Christian Spanish nationalists theories about this period.

This is what customers on Amazon say:

“This book SHATTERS the myth that Islamic Spain was a land of tolerance between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is because the book is very scholarly and it’s pretty dry in parts because of it. On a slightly cerebral note, I didn’t count the number of decapitated heads mentioned in this book, but it’d be a very high number. Someone needs to write a popular history of this time period with the same content because more people need to know what really happened in Al-Andalus.” – Anonymous Amazon customer

This new volume in the series “A History of Spain” follows in the footsteps of the two previous ones (“Visigothic Spain 409-711” and “The Arab Conquest of Spain, 711-797”), written by the same author. The later volume was first published in 1989 and the former on the Visigoths in Spain in 2006. Roger Collins uses Caliphs and Kings to revisit the Arab Conquest of Spain some 20 years later, and revisit some of the themes that he developed at the time, in the light of recent historical literature and archaeological findings. His thesis, summarized in the introduction, is that the Visigothic Kingdom was caught at a moment of weakness, rather than being in decline, or even decadent, when the Arab Conquest happened. Moreover, he shows that the Conquest was so swift because of a conjunction of events: a troubled and violent succession coupled with a civil war, the death of the King in battle against the invaders and the swift occupation of Toledo, the Kingdom’s capital, so that no other fully legitimate King could be crowned again.

He also shows that, beyond the Conquest, there were some fundamental changes but also many elements of continuity. Many families belonging to the elite submitted to the invaders were allowed to keep their lands and most of the political and economic power and converted within a few generations. However, Reilly also states that the Arab Conquest put an end, once and for all, to the political unity of the Iberian Peninsula. Never again would it be unified under a single authority. In addition, he also presents the Omayyad regime of Muslim Spain as having to almost continuously fight the separatist tendencies of numerous regional governors and warlords, especially (but not only) in the three Marches. The general impression that is conveyed is that of a relatively divided, heterogeneous and potentially weak Muslim regime that only the strongest among the Omayyad leaders could successfully hold together. Another component is to show what must have been at least one of the reasons for such endemic unrest. The taxes and tributes that the Emirs’ and then the Caliphs’ administration raised were essentially for their own exclusive benefit, and not for that of their subject. Also, the Emirate and then Caliphate was plagued by succession conflicts as all sons of the reigning monarch (and often all of his brothers as well) could stake a claim to the throne.

Despite this, and despite losing the conquered territories beyond the Pyrenees to the Franks by the end of the 8th century, and Barcelona by the beginning of the 9th, the Muslim regime in Spain is shown to have been much stronger than the small Christian kingdoms that were initially entrenched in the mountains of northern Spain. The attitude of the Ommayads and of the Muslims more generally, towards these kingdoms seems to have been rather ambivalent. After an initial failure to conquer them, they raided them regularly in the name of Holy War, destroying and pillaging what they came across but without seeking to conquer and obliterate these kingdoms once and for all. As Reilly shows rather well, this was both because such a conquest was probably not worth the effort and because these regular raids served the political purpose of demonstrating the Ommayads supremacy within their own territory over their own unruly military and often semi-independent and rebellious governors. Over time, however, the Christian kingdoms expanded and became stronger, taking advantage of the periods of weakness of the Caliphate until the later imploded into multiple successor states (the “taïfa” kingdoms).

Despite the author being a scholar and a specialist of the period, but sometimes also because of this, the book is somewhat difficult to read. They are a number of repetitions, especially when considering the various Christian Kingdoms and Counties, as the same event happens to be considered several times when each of the nascent kingdoms is analysed. Further confusion is introduced with many of the Christian leaders bearing similar names, fighting against each other or allying with each other against a third party as least as much as they fought against Muslim raiders and neighbouring warlords, or with them. An additional difficulty for a “general reader” is the book’s structure. In particular, the last four chapters, which cover the 10th and early 11th century, are not entirely chronological since they present an overview of major events and reigns in Al Andalus, Leon, Navarre and the Pyrenean counties and in the County of Castile. As a result, there is some hardly avoidable jumping back and forth which can be nonetheless confusing.

Interestingly, the volume includes a significant amount of discussion on both the Christian and the Muslim sources with the limitations of both categories of sources being highlighted. For the former, which are largely made up of charters, many of these, and in some cases up to half of them, are either 12th century forgeries or have been heavily interpolated during the 12th century in order to make good specific claims. Reilly also shows that some of the chronicles are quite unreliable and tend to “reconstruct” events or even invent genealogies in order to reinforce the claims and legitimacy of some of the monarchs under which they were written. Muslim “historians” are often no more reliable, although they do often preserve excerpts of older sources within their chronicles. This is largely because their purpose was not to tell history as we would understand it nowadays, but to tell – sometimes mythical and mostly embellished – stories. This is why, for instance, Reilly dismisses as a fiction the story of the vengeful “Count Julian”, Lord of Ceuta, who allegedly ferried the Muslim army of Tariq to Spain.

To conclude, this is a valuable book that displays impressive scholarship and develops interesting and, at times, fascinating theses and assumptions. Unfortunately, both the topic itself (Caliphs AND Kings) and the way it is treated also make this book hard to read and somewhat difficult to access for a “general” reader that does not have a particular interest in the topic. Such as reader might prefer to start with other narratives which have the benefit of being simpler and clearer, even if they are less comprehensive than this one, such as Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain.” – JPS (top 1000 reviewer)

And this is what a member of the Goodreads community said:

I don’t know how the hell I always get mixed up with these rigorously academic studies. I think the concept always intrigues me and then when I start reading I’m like Larry David, I just can’t abandon it until I’m done. No offense to Dr. Collin’s either, it’s just that you can tell he’s been grinding through the gears of academia his entire life; the sentences have all the indicative traces of it. Unfortunately this gets my eyes very bleary, and when their at that state I tend to think irrational thoughts, like, “this book deserves a one star rating” or “I should burn down my local university”. Of course, both of these statements are unfair, and, in one case, exceptionally illegal…

SO LETS GET DOWN TO BUSINESS

In “Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031” (2014), the intention of Roger Collins is, in a broad sense, to lay the framework for a historical understanding of the Umayyad rule in Spain during his chosen time frame (796-1031). Yep, a general history. But rest assured folks, Dr. Collin’s isn’t anywhere near this shallow, he’s got other things on his mind as well. Collins makes it crystal clear that he’s not fond of a popular vein of historiography associated with the period, mainly those that push the notion that this was some sort of perfect ‘golden age’ of mutual toleration (pg.2). Throughout the work Collins always takes great pains to try and argue against such a ‘rosy’ outlook, and the nice thing is, he does so with a fair degree of success. Collins is one of those valuable historians that actually cares a good deal about the scholarly treatment of the sources he is assessing, and he even knows how to point out things that seem particularly misleading.

For those not up to date with the historiographical traditions of Spanish high medieval history (who the hell is), you should know that the idea of convivencio (i.e. ‘La Convivencia), or coexistence, is vitally important to the portions of Collins argument’s that concern the degree of interaction/toleration during the Umayyad rule. Convivencio is something he cannot afford to skip discussing if he wants to be taken seriously, and yet, strangely enough, the actual word is never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the text. Even before the chapter devoted specifically to this topic, i.e. “The Christians of al-Andalus”, we only come into very subtle contact with his thoughts on such perceived collaboration. Collins asserts that, on a political level, Umayyad behavior in the 9th and 10th century, especially there deliberate attempt to not capture more territory (pg.23), is an example, not of Christian/Muslim collaboration or understanding, but rather the lack of aggression (strategic and diplomatic jihad tactic, pg.26) on the side of the Umayyad’s. On a more social level, he says that Muslim influences on Christian ideas were less pronounced then once was thought to believe. He denounces the ‘Mozarabic style’ (pg.119) from having a particularly heavy effect on Spanish architecture, while also claiming that class tensions were higher than ever (pg.169) in the ‘golden age’ of “Abd al-Rahman III”. It should already be easy to see that Collins’ approach doesn’t position itself statically in the comfortable realm of simple political history. If that’s what you wanted out of such a book I suggest looking elsewhere, since he’d rather examine the cultural contact through a constantly questioning investigative lens.

In convivencio arguments he often proves his points by comparing and contrasting scholarly opinions on the ideas put forth, while also heavily criticising what he considers weakness in the source material. Collins will talk in-depth about his thoughts concerning the strength of the sources, an approach that tends to be to his advantage. This is because, more often than not, his position will rely on the ability of his argument to compare and contrast with different scholarly treatment. This type of inquiry can only be executed admirably if the writer has a strong grasp of all of the surrounding causes, secondary authorities, and primary source knowledge, or it would look sloppy and superfluous. Luckily for the reader, Collins usually possesses all three. A case that illustrates this strength can be clearly seen in his ch.7 discussion of the stature of ethnic variance (pg.174-176) in the later Al-Andalus period (‘golden age’). In his analysis he does not concede the idea of a total ethnic convivencio easily. Collins makes it a point to include, not just Christian treatment in the total sum, but rather represent all levels of social variance (Jewish, Arabic, Berbers, etc). By employing this type of comparative approach Collins can argue for a much fuller image of potential coexistence, because it allows him to compare the treatment each social group receives within the realm of the others.

The study isn’t perfect though. A potential weakness in some of Collins’ argumentative chapters can also stem from his heavy reference on sources. Chapter 3 seems to spend too much time trying to compare both Muslim and Christian mental sentiments through the exclusive guiding force of upper class behavior (in the primary source material). The effect this has on his Christian coexistence argument is somewhat negative, as it comes off as forcing a link that is perhaps too exclusive to be as tangible as he would like it to seem. In Chapter 3, he argues that even if the physical reality (i.e. actual attempts) surrounding potential revivals of Christian martyrdom in Al-Andalus was faked or blown out of proportion (pg. 89), the fact that it was a distinctive feature in upper class thought is enough to suggest bad Christian sentiments towards Muslim interaction. This argument is an example of how contrasting too heavily between certain groups can lead the argument into a dead end, as the constant reference to upper class (pg. 86-87) attempts at martyrdom cannot possibly account for the entire social perspective for this behaviour. Furthermore, some of his own arguments in this section tend to go against him, but I won’t press the issue.

Let me just say that the way Dr. Collins organizes his writing is fairly offbeat, switching chapter topics in a way that forces the reader to lose focus. On top of that, some chapters cover history that is in no way related to the previous block of writing (e.g. chapter 6 crammed in between two Al-Andalus discussions). All this makes the work choppy, but I must admit Collins himself has a defense for this when he states that to approach each discussion in the same fashion would be repetitive and “probably impossible” (pg.2) anyway, leaving further inquiry to lean on his bibliography. I guess he assumed this style of approach will suit his work just fine since, as mentioned, one of his key strengths lies in his vast congregation of source material(it has hundreds of footnotes and a forest of a bibliography). I can’t be too angry with his response, simply because of how many things he looks into. His scope is not limited to (often times sketchy) primary source readings but uses basically everything. For example, in his study of the blurry Asturian succession (8th century), he applies the use of legal charters and even physical culture (pg.59) such as coins to come to his conclusions, while in another instance he studies urban planning to a certain degree, so he may figure out the implications of houses that are built over pre-existing Roman roads (29).

Through Collins’ discussion we learn that, if anything, the idea of convivencio is not as clear cut as much of the historiography makes its legacy out to be. Even if we don’t agree with his arguments directly, he’s among an admirable group of new historians who has spotlighted just how much grey area is wrapped around the particular areas of contention in this historical field.

I guess what really irks me about all this is that the book, like the rest of the titles in the History of Spain series it’s featured in, are marketed like popular history and written like extended scholarly papers. If you want a synthesis of academic knowledge on this period, I guess this will work, otherwise, prepare for your eyes to turn grey.” – Petruccio Hambasket IV

Summary of reviews: Roger Collins’ work is criticized for being a bit too scholarly and for some of his arguments against the theory of “convivencia” in the Muslim-dominated Spain, but still his work is considered quite good and everyone recognizes that Collins is a very professional historian.

Book review: Moorish Spain

moorish spain richard fletcher cover

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To find more books on the history of Spain, check out the List history of Spain books section.

Disclosure: I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in bringing you the podcast and a long list of books about Spanish history.

Review Moorish Spain

Moorish Spain, authored by historian Richard Fletcher, was published back in the 90s, but it’s still a great introductory book to learn the basics about Muslim Spain, covering from the conquest in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492, with a special emphasis on the cultural heritage that influenced not only Spain but Europe.

This is what customers on Amazon say:

This was one of several books used in a course on “Literature and Culture of Muslim Spain” that I took in 2009. As our professor pointed out, the period from 711 to 1492 is difficult because the Muslim culture flourished early in Iberia and then went into a centuries-long, anticlimactic decline. At the time I took the course I found this book difficult to absorb and much preferred the Maria Rosa Menocal’s book on the same subject. However, post-graduation I’ve had time to read these two books separately and in their entirety. Fletcher’s book has risen mightily in my esteem. While Menocal’s very entertaining collection of essays does make it easy to relate to “Muslim Spain,” Fletcher’s task is far more difficult. He’s trying to help the general reader make sense of a chaotic and scantily-documented period. His basic approach is chronological, but events often were affected by other events happening in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond the Pyrenees, sometimes simultaneously, which often necessitates a little backtracking. Fletcher’s writing is concise. It was often necessary for me to put the book down and think about what I’d read. However, by reading carefully the reader can learn a lot about the historian’s tools. The book would be valuable to me for this reason, if for no other. “Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding,” writes Fletcher in the final chapter of this book. As Ms. Menocal’s book so aptly exemplifies, there is a tendency to romanticize al-Andalus. Fletcher romanticizes nothing. His agenda is historical understanding. I’d recommend, if possible, reading both Fletcher’s and Menocal’s books. They reinforce and support each other. Five stars for Fletcher, too.” – Krebsman

Richard Fletcher’s “Moorish Spain” is a refreshing tonic against the plethora of books on Islamic Spain idealizing the supposed ‘Convivencia’ (especially, “The Ornament of the World” by Maria Rosa Menocal). Fletcher avoids the tendency among many scholars who wish to find an apt, hopeful (albeit unrealistic) Christian-Islamic modus vivendi for Europe’s present-day demographic predicament based on a romaticized model of medieval Spain. Presented in a well-researched, matter-of-fact fashion, the ‘good’ is presented in the context of the ‘bad and the ugly’.” – M. Orbuch

And this is what readers of the Goodreads community say:

An excellent book outlining the history of Moorish Spain! In 711 a relatively small army crossed over from Africa to establish a presence on the Iberian peninsula which was to last for almost a thousand years. Richard Fletcher describes the development of Moorish civilization from its beginnings, its relationship with Christian Europe and the rest of the Islamic world through to its final collapse in 1492. The book also shows how Islamic learning introduced science, agricultural practices and ancient philosophical studies which benefited the then emerging cultures of Christian Europe.

This book gives an insight into a fascinating period of history. Recommended reading!” – Andrew

After reading and being disappointed with Menocal’s famous book on Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World, I decided to take another crack with this book. And I am happy to report that Fletcher’s book is much better.

While Menocal is wistful and romantic, Fletcher is more detached and occasionally wry. While Menocal hardly acknowledges her sources, Fletcher is usually careful to note where he is getting his information from, even if this book lacks a scholarly bibliography. I found this a great relief, as I have been discovering that Moorish Spain is one of the most persistently mythologized periods in history. Washington Irving set the tone for this in his Tales of the Alhambra, but other writers have been following in his romantic footsteps ever since. Thus Fletcher’s dispassionate treatment was refreshing.

The main drawbacks of this book is that it is too short, and too scholarly. Fletcher was explicitly aiming for a popular audience, but the book he wrote would be better suited for an undergraduate class than a tourist. You cannot, for example, find many good vacation ideas in these pages; indeed, if this was your introduction to Moorish Spain, you might not even want to travel there at all.

Instead of focusing on intellectual and cultural history, the majority of this text deals with political and military history—the invasions, battles, territorial expansions, and so on. Admittedly, Fletcher also quotes poems, autobiographies, and includes pictures of famous buildings; he even has a whole chapter on the relations between Christians and Muslims during this time. But this information jostles for space among dozens of unfamiliar names of rulers who I do not much care to remember. Probably, if he wanted a better-selling book, he could have bot expanded it and included more of a personal touch. He is a fine writer and rather opinionated, so it would have served him well, I think, to have written something less formal.

In any case, I doubt there are any better books on the market for the history hungry tourist visiting Andalusia. This book will give you an overview of the period, and in the process inoculate you against much of the nonsense that gets thrown around about al-Andalus. It was not a paradise of tolerance, nor was it a perpetual war of faith against faith. As Fletcher said: “The past, like the present, is for most of the time rather flavourless.” ” – Roy Lotz

Summary of reviews: reviews are very positive, the only criticism I’ve found is that some say it’s too scholarly and the bombardment of dates in a 200-pages book can confuse the general reader. Recommended for those who want to have a general perspective about Muslim Spain.

Book review: Homage to Catalonia

homage to catalonia cover

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Review Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia is one of the three classical books of British journalist and writer George Orwell. This personal account provides insights of what was happening in Anarchist or Revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, from the point of view of a hot-headed foreign partisan who fought for the POUM, an anti-Stalinist communist organization that was eventually declared illegal due to the progressively stronger influence of the Soviet Union in Republican Spain. He served in the Aragon front for some months, then moved to Barcelona and there he suffered the greatest disappointed he could image: Republicans weren’t fighting the Nationalists, they were fighting against themselves, as the Republican government, with heavy Soviet influence, wanted to take control over all the Republican forces and Anarchist CNT opposed that. That changed his perspective about socialism, as he opposed totalitarianism. Historian Antony Beevor correctly stated that “Orwell’s experiences in Spain formed the start of the road that led to Animal Farm and to Nineteen Eighty-four, two of the most influential novels of the 20th century, but Homage to Catalonia still stands in a class all of its own.”

This is what customers on Amazon say:

This is a classic book is a cure for idealism. It raised my political awareness about the Spanish Civil War and human nature. The tale Orwell has to tell is relentlessly depressing and frequently shocking. Soldiers are rushed into battle with little training and fewer weapons. Idealists take charge and murder innocents on the slightest of pretexts. The weather is terrible, the food worse and despite the optimism of the troops, one feels they know there is little chance of beating Franco.

The text is well written, the images vivid, the characters well drawn. This is enlightening look at one of the darker chapters in history.” – Charlie Calvert

“This book is a wonderfully written nonfiction account of Orwell’s time as a volunteer fighting against Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Even if you have no interest in the Spanish Civil War, you should read this book for its beautiful, evocative writing, the insights into human nature and the often black humor. Besides being one of the great writers in English in the 20th Century, Orwell was a very brave man, both physically and intellectually. He opposed all forms of totalitarianism (both Fascism and Stalinist Communism) and remained a democratic Socialist all his life. If you have read Animal Farm and 1984, you also should read Homage to Catalonia.” – J. C. Beadles

Had it not been for his experience surviving the Soviet-run purge of other organizations fighting fascism in Spain, I doubt he could have conveyed the sinister aspects of a police state in 1984 nearly as well as he did. But here he describes his own, personal experience of seeing friend “disappeared” as a result of Stalinist, fabricated (yes, I know the two words are redundant) charges of the most ridiculous nature. It is a good thing Orwell never learned much in detail about the reasons for Stalin’s purges: monomaniacal paranoia and jealousy of anyone and any organization that gained recognition for spreading non-Soviet forms of egalitarian socialism, as compared to Soviet state consolidation of power to benefit nobody but a hideous group of power-addicted executioners.” – Anthony Murawski

And this is what readers of the Goodreads community say:

“This book is justly famous for its disillusioned account of how the Communist Party—in its eagerness to defeat Franco–betrayed the successful anarchist experiment in Catalonia for the sake of expedience, how it executed and imprisoned its anarchist and socialist comrades for the sake of a temporary alliance with the bourgeois.

I found all this very interesting, but have to admit that the real reason I liked the book so much was for its gritty account of war on the cheap, where guns are poor, marksmanship is worse, and the lack of food, matches and candles is more important than any threat by the enemy. In spite of the generally poor marksmanship, however, Orwell did manage to get himself shot in the neck, and his first-hand account of what it is like to be wounded is vivid and completely absorbing.

The only thing that keeps this book from being superb is its detailed discussion of each of the various left-wing parties and their responsibility—or lack of responsibility–for the internecine battles on the streets of Barcelona that contributed to the subsequent purges, arrests, and imprisonments. Orwell clearly realizes that this account may be a problem for his narrative, for he apologizes for its length, arguing that previous accounts in the international press have been so deceptive that it has become necessary to set the record straight. Now, however, more than seventy-five years later, such a precise accounting is indeed unnecessary–at least for the general reader–and Orwell’s book suffers as a result.” – Bill Kerwin

“Orwell’s memoir of his service fighting in leftist militia in the Spanish Civil War. “A comic opera with an occasional death.” Dangers of extremist politics. Great story telling. It’s all here.” – Hadrian

Summary of reviews: contemporary reviews were mixed, but today it’s considered a classic. Don’t be confused though, it’s not a book to learn about the Spanish Civil War in a broad perspective, it’s a very personal account to understand that the Spanish Civil War was very complex and how dangerous can be totalitarianisms and extremisms. Very recommended, and it’s a short read!

Book review: Conquistadores, emires y califas: Los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus

conquistadores, emires y califas: los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus portada y review

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Review Conquistadores, emires y califas: Los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus

Conquistadores, emires y califas: Los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus is a Spanish history book written by Eduardo Manzano Moreno in 2011. Professor Eduardo Manzano studies the three centuries that follow the Muslim Umayyad conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, from the conquest started in 711 to the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The work is based on Latin and Arabic sources, as well as recent archeological and numismatic findings to provide an accurate and objective approximation to the evolution of al-Andalus until the fall of the Caliphate.

This is what academic reviews say about this work:

“It is, in short, a work of very high quality, developed with the right tools by an author who is well versed in the issues he deals with and who has patently put the greatest interest on it. But as important or more than its intrinsic value will be its ability to provoke new debates that revivify the scope of the history of al-Andalus, since, among other virtues not negligible, it will put before the eyes of the Arabists all the contributions that from other fields have been done in recent years, so we can not continue to ignore them -this has been the mainstream position-, but we will have to take advantage of the good that they contain and confront once and for all the lost theories that have gone growing before the disdainful silence, but not for that reason less accomplice, of the union of the Arabists.” – Luis Molina

This is what buyers on Amazon say:

“This book is an exhaustive study on the history of the origin, development and fall of Al-Andalus, with an introduction about the Visigoths. The worst, there are few images, but it is a small detail that can be ignored if the objective is to know in-depth the origin of the Andalusian culture” – Helena

“A well-explained and easy-to-consult book.” – Fernando Cevallos

Summary of reviews: there are some objections to Manzano’s work, like the lack of information about Andalusian wars (because there’s a lack of that in Andalusian historiography) or the exaggerated importance of the Ulama, the Islamic scholars, but overall the work is appreciated as exhaustive and comprehensive.

Book review: Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936

Spain's First Democracy: The Second Republic 1931-1936 book cover

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Review Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931–1936

Hispanist historian Stanley G. Payne gives us his vast knowledge about the Second Spanish Republic in this book called Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936. This book is a must-have if you want to understand the backstory of the subsequent Spanish Civil War. Payne explores the reforms, politics, church-state relations, education, culture, public works, military and society of this decisive period of Spanish history. Among other things, he explores the political polarization of the Left and Right and the political violence that was so relevant for the start of the civil war and the later downfall of the Republic.

This is what academic reviews say about this work:

“Because of the enormous attention that has been paid to the Spanish Civil War, Spain’s Second Republic has been generally ill-served by historians. Most have treated the period from 1931 to 1936 as the backdrop to the war itself, and therefore they have tended to judge the Republican experience in a negative light. Stanley G. Payne’s latest book is a welcome departure from this historiographical practice. By clearly establishing the historical connections between the Second Republic and the various reform and modernizing movements of earlier periods, Payne convincingly demonstrated that there was a substantial political and economic infrastructure on which a durable democratic government could have been built.” – American Historical Review

“The Spanish Second Republic, created in 1931 following the fall of the Monarchy, is often overlooked or simply dismissed as a prelude to the Civil War of 1936-9. But as Stanley Payne convincingly shows in the first overview of the Republic to be published in English for some time, this failed regime was no mere isolated parenthesis in the rush towards bloodshed. Rather, it was a complex democratic experiment comparable to that of Weimar Germany, part of the Europe-wide tide of liberalization that flowed and ebbed after the First World War.” – Tim Rees, University of Exeter

“Payne’s scope in this book is very impressive. The totality of the political and social struggle during this period is his greatest success – The Second Republic as a process.” – Robert Kern, University of New Mexico

 

Summary of reviews: there are few reviews available, but everyone recognizes that Stanley G. Payne is the greatest American Hispanist at this time. Consider buying this book if you want to better understand the 1930s of Spain.

Book review: The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy cover

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Review The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy is the greatest work of historian Peter H. Wilson. In more than 850 pages he tells us the story of the devastaiting Thirty Years’ War that devastated Germany, caused the decline of Habsburg Spain and the rise of France as the predominant European power and consolidated the split between Catholics and Protestants.

This is what editorials say about the book:

“Among continental Europeans, the Thirty Years War is etched in memory…A definitive account has been needed, and now Peter Wilson, one of Britain’s leading historians of Germany, has provided it. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy is a history of prodigious erudition that manages to corral the byzantine complexity of the Thirty Years War into a coherent narrative. It also offers a bracingly novel interpretation. Historians typically portray the Thirty Years War as the last and goriest of Europe’s religious wars–a final bonfire of the zealots before the cooler age of enlightened statecraft. Mr. Wilson severely qualifies this conventional wisdom. It turns out that the quintessential war of religion was scarcely one at all…Wilson’s masterful account of the Thirty Years War is a reminder that war, and peace, are almost never the offspring of conviction alone.”- Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal

“Peter Wilson’s book is a major work, the first new history of the Thirty Years’ War in a generation. It is a fascinating, brilliantly written attempt to explain a compelling series of events, which tore the heart out of Europe.” – The Times

“[It] succeeds brilliantly. It is huge both in its scene-setting and its unfolding narrative detail…It is to Wilson’s credit that he can both offer the reader a detailed account of this terrible and complicated war and step back to give due summaries. His scholarship seems to me remarkable, his prose light and lovely, his judgments fair. This is a heavyweight book, no doubt. Sometimes, though, the very best of them have to be.” – Paul Kennedy, Sunday Times

This is what buyers on Amazon say:

“This book is 851 pages long in the paperback edition. That said, it’s well-written and not at all a difficult read. If you want a complete history of the Thirty Years War in English that moves with ease and facility between detailed, blow-by-blow accounts of battles (with great battlefield maps!) and larger macro developments across Europe, this is your best option. If you are new to the Thirty Years War and/or want a shorter, even more readable account, consider CV Wedgwood’s classic narrative history The Thirty Years War. That book is about half the length of this one (and gives shorter shrift to the second half of the war).” – Nick Kapur

I purchased this book on September 15th, and it has taken me this long to digest the contents (while reading other books.) Make no mistake, the Thirty Years War was extremely complex, and reading about it will be necessarily slow to allow the reader to fully comprehend the subject. This work is extraordinary in that it starts well before 1618 to address the causes of the war, and ends well after 1648 with three chapters addressing the impact of the two treaties ending the war (Osnabrueck and Muenster, together called the Treaty of Westphalia,) the costs of the war, and the general population’s experiences and adaptations.

This is only the third general book on the war I have read in English, the other two being Wedgwood, “The Thirty Years War” and Parker, “The Thirty Years War”, although I have read a number of books in German on the subject including Schiller and Jessen. There are also books more limited in scope that I could recommend like “Wallenstein” by Golo Mann. But so far, this work seems to me to be the gold standard.

It is impossible today to depict the utter devastation visited on the German population during this war, and the author frankly doesn’t try. The book is primarily concerned with the political and military maneuvering that allowed the war to break out and continue for so long. Even in Chapter 22, “The Human and Material Cost”, the focus is on the macro level. The discussion of populations deaths in Germany have ranged from fifteen to eighty-three (5/6ths) percent, although the author, after much discussion, adopts twenty percent in one place and thirty in another. Certainly the populations of many towns were extirpated, and killings by soldiers of civilians and vice-versa was endemic outside of the formal battles. Regardless of the true percentage which most authorities agree was around 40%, the effect on the civilian population was unbelievable, and a country with a promising middle class was reduced to desolation and want. Only in the last chapter does the author touch upon the subject, and then only lightly. As late as 1980, Germans rated the Thirty Years War as the most devastating event in their country’s history, World Wars I and II notwithstanding. Throughout the conflict foreign armies or armies of a competing religion passed through communities and regions looting, murdering, raping, and burning at every opportunity.

I found the author’s attempt to downplay religion most interesting although it was impossible for me to agree with his analysis. Many writers have cast the war as Protestant versus Roman Catholic, and indeed, armies were generally made up almost exclusively of adherents of one religion or the other. Certainly religious issues were paramount when soldiers murdered civilians, and it must be remembered that this was an age in which people died over the number of sacrements or the reality of transubstantiation. As the author points out, princes (most notably a number of Protestant princes) converted from one religion to the other for political purposes (politicians are always venal and opportunistic), but the general population tended to fight for their religion to the last extremity. I don’t mean to argue the point with the author, but this was essentially the only point where I felt he was in error.

The maps of the various battles are useful, but my volume lacked an overall map of the area of conflict. Actually, several are needed to reflect the situation at various times (consider a single map showing World War II.) Supposedly there was to be a map of Europe in 1618 in the end papers, but it was not present — instead there was s chart of the Habsburg Family Tree. This deficiency of area maps seems to be common in works on the Thirty Years War, but perhaps the next edition will add them.

This book is split into three parts, “Beginnings,” “Conflict” and “Aftermath.” The “Beginnings” contains eight chapters of the evolution towards the war and spans 268 pages. I found this part to be the best, not the least since it is usually skated over in other works. The “Conflict” part is somewhat mind-numbing (480 pages with 12 chapters) and most recommended for those interested in the military campaigns of Ferdinand, Wallenstein, Tilly, Gustavus Adolphus and the lesser lights. This is where one can become bogged down with the constant campaigning, shifting alliances, and ever-changing conditions. The analysis in the third part, “Aftermath” (90 pages) must be read carefully to understand the impact of the war of subsequent history. All parts are valuable but may appeal to different readers.

This is a very scholarly work, and the notes (73 pages) are extremely valuable. There is no bibliography or list of references, and the reader must use the notes for guidance.

I highly recommend this work to everyone interested in early modern times or the seventeenth century in Europe. In addition, this is an awesome reference work for one to be able to refer back to some incident or issue in the Thirty Years War. This conflict did not become fully resolved until Bismarck’s consolidation of Germany late in the 19th century, so its impact was far-reaching and important.” – Arkansaw Traveler

Summary of reviews: most are positives, but there are some that signal the fact that it’s a very dense book full of details that can make the reading difficult and too scholarly. Make sure you are really interested in the topic before you buy the book, but if you are this is the best one-volume English book about the conflict!

Book review: De Pavía a Rocroi

de pavía a rocroi los tercios españoles julio albi

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Review De Pavía a Rocroi

De Pavía a Rocroi is a Spanish book written in 1999 by Julio Albi de la Cuesta that has been recently republished by editorial Desperta Ferro. It’s a +400 pages book written in Spanish that tells the story of the legendary infantry units of Spain, the Tercios. The Tercios were a type of infantry organization that sought a parallel rise and fall with the Spanish Empire, and that certainly contributed to the period of Spanish military dominance. It’s not only focused on the military history of the Tercios, it also tells the kind of daily life that the soldiers of the Tercios lived and the spirit and discipline of this infantry.

This is what buyers say on Amazon.es:

“Fantastic book with everything related to the Tercios. Very good edition with an excellent carthography, and the author is very divulgative and pleasant. The only thing is that you should read beforehand something more basic like Esparza and Parker. From my point of view, it’s the best book about the Tercios, no doubt.” – Marcos75

“This book is wonderful, it describes perfectly how the Tercios were managed, plus the causes and consequences of their successes and failures.” – Iván A. Recio Cabrera

This is what users of Goodreads say:

“Anyone who wants to have a good idea of what the Spanish Tercios supposed (origins, organization, endemic problems, customs, evolution, decadence) should go into these pages. However, the interest must be genuine. The detailed descriptions of battles and number of contenders, along the military jargon, demand effort from the reader.

Those who seek an outrageous panegyric truffled with epic, exaggeration and patriotic nostalgia will find nothing to satisfy their hunger. The author deals with the phenomenon with objectivity and exhaustive encouragement, far from exaltation and mythology.” – César

“Great work of Spanish military literature. Despite having already heard his virtues and having high expectations, Julio Albi does not disappoint the least. With an exquisite Spanish, the author manages to make a study, at times surprisingly meticulous, of two centuries of practically continuous combat.

We could divide his work into two parts: the first half aimed at explaining the organization of the troops organically and internally. And a second, in which we delight in learning what were the Tercios in combat: both on land and by sea, without forgetting their great work in the trenches of Europe.

Essential work for those who want to know about what was, for two centuries, the best infantry of its time.” – Pablo de Angulo R-M

Finally, this is what Archivohistoria.com says about this book:

“Experts and ignorants in the field will be satisfied with this work, a classic already, that together with “The army of Flanders and the Spanish road” by Geoffrey Parker and “The Tercios” by René Quatrefages completes the perfect trilogy to know the rise and decline of the Tercios. An essential essay for lovers of military history that returns to the bookstores by the hand of Desperta Ferro.”

Summary of reviews: all are very positive, and I think it’s important to highlight that it’s not a work with a nationalist bias, it’s an objective work aimed to teach every aspect of the Tercios and their history. Very recommended to learn how Spain dominated militarily Europe and the New World.