There are no “forgotten wars.” We may choose to talk about them, to write about them, or to learn from them. Or we may not. It is a question of what value we place on the lessons. Some eras, forged in strife and hardship, embrace history’s lessons, and consume narratives of past conflict with an eager inquisitiveness; other epochs, softened by luxury and lassitude, are largely immune to the lessons of the past. In the end, it is always a matter of choice.
In the past I’ve resisted the idea of making lists of recommended books. One gets the sense that the instant something is committed to a list, many will assume that the list is exclusive, and that other options should not be considered. There is also a personal feeling of distaste I have towards the “listicle” writing format: it seems trite, simplistic, and geared towards the lowest attention span reader.
Great enterprises require a sustained effort over a long period of time. They cannot be pursued in fits and starts with intermittent bursts of energy; and they demand a confluence of factors that only coalesce on rare occasions. There must exist the ability and talent to conceive the project; there must be intense initiative and endurance to carry it through to completion; and, as a practical matter, the creator must have the leisure and financial ability to sponsor his labors. If any of these requirements are wanting, there will be no progress.
Below are listed my favorite films of the past twenty years. These are the movies that have most influenced me, or have left the most enduring impression on my mind. They are presented in no rigid order of hierarchy, except for the first title, The Lives of Others, which for me towers over every other film as a cherished work of cinematic art.
Pliny’s Natural History (XXV.47) contains a passage that discusses hellebore, a medicinal plant that in ancient times was used to treat insanity. One variety of hellebore, he says, is called melampodion, a name acquired from a shepherd named Melampus, who noticed that the plant had a purgative effect on his female goats (capras purgari pasto illo animadvertentem) once they had eaten it. This milk, we are told, cured “the daughters of Proetus of madness.” Pliny even describes a detailed ritual supposedly used to collect the plant. But who were the daughters of Proetus? What story is being referenced?
The writer and scholar Yamut Ibn Al-Muzarra’ (يموت ابن المزرع) was a native of Basra, Iraq. In the words of his biographer Ibn Khallikan, he was known as “an accomplished literary scholar, and well-versed in history.” His name (Yamut) was a source of some consternation for him as a young man, for it is the third-person active form of the Arabic verb “to die” (مات). He apparently never fulfilled his obligation of visiting the sick in hospitals, for fear that his name would bring misfortune upon patients confined to bed. “The name,” he said, “which l received from my father has been a great annoyance to me. So when I go to visit the sick and am asked my name, I answer, ‘The son of Al-Muzarra,’ and suppress my real name.”
Ibn Sabir Al-Manjaniki’s full name was Abu Yusuf Ibn Sabir Ibn Hauthara Al-Manjaniki; we note it here for completeness, and will not repeat it again. He was also known in some circles by the surname Najm Al-Din, which means “star of religion.” He was born in Baghdad in January 1159, and spent his early life there. He is nearly unique in having achieved enduring fame in two completely separate disciplines: military engineering and poetry.
The birthdate of the philologist and grammarian Yacub Ibn Al-Sikkit (ابو يوسف يعقوب ابن السكيت) is not known with certainty, but 800 A.D. is a reliable estimate. His father enjoyed notoriety and prestige in court circles, and may have conferred on his son some access to the corridors of power. The sobriquet “Al-Sikkit” was given to him because of his taciturnity, for the Arabic verb sakata (سكت) means “to be silent.” However, as the reader will soon discover, he was evidently not silent enough.