A clay tablet, found near the ruined Temple of Zeus in the ancient city of Olympia, Greece, could be the oldest written record of The Odyssey. The tablet was uncovered by archaeologists and tentatively dated to the Roman-era 200s CE.
It is engraved with 13 verses from the Odyssey’s fourteenth book,
in which Odysseus speaks to his lifelong friend Eumaeus, the first person he sees on his return from his decade away from home.
One man, Kumarajiva, is responsible for revolutionizing Chinese Buddhism. He lived from 334 to 413 CE during China’s Sixteen Kingdoms Era, and was tasked by the Later Qin emperor with translating key Buddhist texts into Chinese from Sanskrit. This is harder than mere literal translation. Sanskrit and Chinese are very different, linguistically, and Kumarajiva complained that the translation work was like having to eat rice after someone else had already chewed it!
Kumarajiva was able to translate many key Buddhist texts. In China today, millions of Chinese speak the words of Kumarajiva every day.
In 1927, China was shocked by a sensational new character: Sophie, a woman wracked by sexual longing who was determined to torment her reliable if dull boyfriend, while consumed with lust for a man she could not have.
Sophie was the protagonist of Miss Sophie’s Diary, a short story by Jiang Bingzhi, who went by the pen name Ding Ling. It was published during a brief period in Chinese history, the New Culture movement, which was liberal intellectual movement centered in China’s cities. Ding Ling was part of the left-leaning literary scenes in Beijing and Shanghai.
But she soon found herself on the run from the nationalist political authorities. Ding Ling and literarti like her were dangerously subversive to the China the nationalists wanted to build. She joined the communists by the 1940s, but ended up in internal exile, living in a remote rural area. Ding Ling’s work was too “bourgeouis” and “individualistic” and “rightist” now.
In the 1970s, in her seventies, Ding Ling was rehabilitated. Today she is remembered as one of China’s most important feminist authors.
Ayurveda, a ancient medical tradition from India, has three great ancient authors. Each is known for one significant text. Today they are understood to be compilation texts, summaries of schools of medicine at the time of their writing, but the authors are believed to have been real people who wrote each individual book. Like an encyclopedia.
Sushruta, writing sometime in the 600s BCE (probably) wrote the “Sushruta Samhita,” a treatise on medicine and surgery with a large section dedicated to medical instruments as well. Charaka, alive sometime in the 200s BCE, wrote a treatise focusing solely on medicine, the “Charaka Samhita.”
The third great author, Vagbhata, came much later in the 600s CE. His two major ayurvedic treatises similarly covered a broad swathe of medicine, but they also explicitly referenced the Sushruta Samhita and the Charaka Samhita, covering where they disagreed and the various solutions that had arose to those disagreements over the centuries.
Koreans invented moveable type made of durable metal in the 1200s CE. The oldest existing book made from moveable metal type is the Jikji a collection of Buddhist teachings, hymns, eulogies, and poetry. It was compiled by a Korean Buddhist monk named Baegun, and printed in 1377.
The earliest known alternative history was written by the Roman historian Livy. In his grand history of the world, Livy makes a digression in book 9, and imagines that if Alexander the Great had lived longer, he may have turned west and attacked Italy, and the Romans would have defeated him.
BOOK REVIEW: TEN CAESARS: ROMAN EMPEROR FROM AUGUSTUS TO CONSTANTINE
WRITTEN for a general audience, Ten Caesars is filled with vivid descriptions of historical moments and nuanced presentations of ten different emperors. Barry Strauss’ engaging narrative style and focus on framing each Caesar with his historical context results in a book with a panoply of unique characters, including the Caesars, military generals, and many women.
In Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, Barry Strauss tells the story of ten notable Roman leaders. Strauss is a Professor of History and Classics at Cornell University, holding an MA and PhD from Yale University. Moreover, he published many other well-received articles and books on the subject of Roman history. As such, he is highly qualified to narrate the history of ten Roman emperors. Scholars are trained to be analytical, critical, and meticulous, and so when they write books for general audiences, they are often erudite and informative but also dry, unengaging, and monotonous. Strauss, though, is different.
From beginning to end, Strauss’ storytelling captured my attention with vivid descriptions of historical moments and nuanced presentations of the Caesars. He accomplishes these feats by carefully showing how each individual Caesar interacted with his social, political, cultural, and religious environment in unique ways. In doing so, he unveils a new character through each chapter. This is notable because historical figures too often become flattened, one-dimensional characters, one the same as another. Strauss avoids this type of characterization, writing a refreshing narrative instead.
The Austrian Empire was serious about its censorship. It had a very, very long state index of banned books, mostly based on the Vatican’s Index librorum prohibitorum.
Ironically, the Austrian state index became a defacto list of interesting books, and students would buy it, to find out what they should be reading! In the end, the state index was itself placed on a banned books register in 1777.