2021 in books: Roman history special (July-September)


Well, here we are again. This summer has been very busy and at times, very difficult. But there were books, just not as many as I liked. I didn’t mean to take such a deep dive into Roman history in the last few months, but the first book on my list set me off down a path where the (rare) free reading time I had over the summer was largely spent in the Mediterranean past…

Ancient Rome: the rise and fall of an empire by Simon Baker (BBC Books, 2006)

Something of a primer for those new to the subject, this book nonetheless features plenty of interesting information for everyone. Originally published to accompany a BBC series, Baker moves from one period to another, with little linking these areas of focus, which can feel a little disjointed at times.

Baker devotes each chapter to one life in particular, such as Julius Caesar or Constantine. Here, we see a classic example of the Great Man theory of history, in which stories of the past are told through the prism of one man. The downside of this is that readers can be left with the feeling that these individuals were predestined for greatness, which is almost never a forgone conclusion, and indeed only a stance that one can take when looking back on a life that has long since ended.

Nowadays, I prefer books which can take into account the lives of the society in which these so-called ‘great men’ were able to rise to power. Luckily, the following titles have tried to steer more closely to the ‘bigger picture’ approach, to varying degrees of success…

Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003, Abacus)

This one was a welcome re-read. Rubicon is one of my favourite books on Roman history, and Holland one of my favourite historical writers. This books centres in the era Ancient Rome moved from a republic almost half a millennium old to a dictatorship, then empire under the rule of one man for the first time since their hated olden days of kings.

Interwoven into this narrative history are the letters of famous orator Cicero, accounts of the civil wars that gave rise to Augustus (Rome’s first ever First Citizen – Julius Ceasar was only ever ‘dictator for life’), the surrounding empire, wives, slaves, lovers and celebrity chefs. There’s humour and reasoning beyond the usual ‘dates & battles’ format many of us might be used to in history books.

Holland has a knack for presenting his well researched stories in an engaging manner (I have previously reviewed one of his shorter books on Atherstan of England here). However, I mainly read this book again to refresh myself of the historical circumstances in which the next book commences…

Dynasty: the rise and fall of the house of Ceasar by Tom Holland (2015, Abacus)

Rome’s shift from republic to monarchy-in-all-but-name was more piecemeal than some might think. From the pretentions of Julius Ceasar to the encroaching laws which gradually secured the long-term ambitions of Augustus, the path to a (sort of) hereditary title of Emperor, took a few generations to form. This book examines the family line from Julius to Nero. Six rulers who changed the way Rome was governed – the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

In relating the key events, relationships and bizarre behaviour of these first emporors, Holland also shows us a reflection of the people of Rome itself. He reminds us that the outrageous rumours surrounding the Ceasars survive because that was what the public and historians of the era wanted to believe and disseminate. To some extent, he argues that the lives of the Ceasars, as we know them today through surviving sources, offers a glimpse into the psyche of the empire’s people, and fleshed out the book’s six chapters with examples of customs and lifestyles which changed alongside – or as a result of – their changed system of government.

As always, Holland wears background and humour into the classical sources, making this another riveting and informative read fom the mater of narrative history. Highly recommended.

A note on early sources

The books I am reading were all published this millenium, and rely on scant surving materials from many centuries ago. These few works (or parts thereof) are likely to represent less than 1% of the writng that was made at the time during or following the lives of the Ceasers and thir contemporaries. Can you imagine how differenty these lives would be iewed if we had a less narrow picture through which to study them?

However, it is worth mentioning at this point are three histories widely used as sources again and again for works on the Roman Empire around the time the Caesars. Despite their political or personal biases, they are fascinating reading in and of themselves. Additionally, apart from surviving correspondence written by prominent men of the time – poets and statesman alike – they remain the closest writings to the actual events being chronicled. You should check them out. They are:

  • Tacitus: Roman historian AND politian (lived 56CE-120CE). His Histories and Annals cover Emporors Tiberius to Nero, as well as the year of the four Emporors which followed Nero’s death. He pays particular attention to the invasions of Britain in the 1st century CE, possibly because his father-in-law was a prominent general serving on the island at this time, but overall considered one of the more reliable sources.
  • Suetonius: Some-time clerk for the Emporors Trajan & Hadrian and historian (lived circa 69CE-122CE). His position gave him access to various letters and documents on which he based his famous history of the first twelve Princeps of Rome, from Julius Ceasar to Domitian. However, he was likely mindful to flatter the living ruler and focus heavily on the gossip and salacious rumours about these Ceasars. So not necessarily reliable, but the parts which survive make for entertaining reading.
  • Cassius Dio: Another Roman statesman (lived circa 155CE-235CE) who wrote a huge history of Rome – in Greek – from it’s mythical foundation to the times he lived in,and published a few years before his death. The first sections are mere summaries up until around the 1st century BC, but sadly only parts of his Histories survive to our time.Dr

The restoration of Rome: barbarian pipes & imperial pretenders by Peter Heather (2013, Pan/MacMillan)

Can you tell that I’ve been on something of a Roman history jaunt? Following two books from Holland about the collapse of the Roman republic, it seemed fitting to follow up with a book on what happened next.

From Visigoths reigning as Emporors of the Western Roman Empire, to the rise of the papacy and the empire’s ‘rebirth’ as the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne. The story ends with Pope Innocent III cementing the Vatican as the Kingmaker of medieval Europe. It’s well written and highly informative. There are lots of battles and political double deals, with extensive notes and directions to further reading, if this isn’t enough (although I would strongly recommend Norwich’s brilliant history of the papacy, The Popes, reviewed here).

That’s it for this time, folks.

I mentioned I’d review a book about coffee in this instalment. However, although I read and enjoyed David Egger’s The Monk of Mocha this summer, it didn’t fit in with the Roman theme of this review, so I have moved my summary of that book to the next instalment.

Also next time, an actual novel! And more history, as well as books about other books! I’ll also mention a few of my favourites from this year at the end too. Until then…