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…

Great Guitarists #1: Earl Klugh

Great Guitarists

In this series, I’ve selected artists who have been both an inspiration and influence on my own guitar playing or musical practice. I’ll try to include a few details about them as well as a track for ‘essential listening’. I hope you get something out of it. Do feel free to comment on my picks for Great Guitarists – perhaps suggest your own! First up…

Earl Klugh

Earl Klugh was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1953, and first picked up the guitar at the age of ten. His early influences included legendary Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, pioneering jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and Country/crossover star Chet Atkins (with whom he would later record). Many jazz players (including the pianist Bill Evans) as well as an array of Latin and classical players continued to inform the way Klugh developed his guitar technique. Like many Latin-influenced guitarists, Klugh has stuck largely with nylon-strung guitars for his entire career, but his wide mix of influences give him a unique voice of his own.

Klugh made his professional debut on flautist Yusef Lateef’s 1970 album, Suite 16, aged just 15, after Lateef heard him playing in his local music store. Later, Klugh joined the band of the legendary guitarist George Benson. As well as performing guitar live with Benson’s band, Klugh also played on two of his classic jazz albums (before Benson started to focus more on singing & becoming a more commercial star), White Rabbit (1972) & Body Talk (1973).

Releasing his eponymous debut solo album in 1976, Klugh has since released over thirty records, in a variety of formats, including solo, duo and ensembles of various sizes. Over his career, he has received twelve Grammy nominations, winning the award for ‘Best pop instrumental performance’ with 1981’s One On One, recorded with jazz pianist Bob James.

I first discovered Klugh in the late 90’s and often used his composition ‘Kiko’ (from his 1976 album Living Inside Your Love) as a solo guitar piece for auditions. It featured in my repertoire for performances long before I caught the bug for Latin music, and Klugh (along with Santana) were the gateway to discovering the wonderful genres of South America.

As a classically trained guitarist, the sound of Klugh’s instrument felt comfortably familiar, although his main way of plucking the strings (using his thumb in both directions, like Wes Montgomery) was a rather alien concept to start with. Try it though – it’s worth persevering with, as it opens up a whole new, and potentially faster, way of playing the lower strings.

The track featured in this video is ‘Dr Macumba’ from his 1977 album Finger Paintings. It’s a great example of Klugh’s style, opening with a funky latin-infused riff, through to his cloud yet melodic jazz phrasing. Although it appears to start as a fairly small ensemble piece, this tune turns out to be a bigger production than expected, including rather brief string arrangement providing a classic 70’s lift in the middle of the piece!

Dr Macumba’ by Earl Klugh

I thoroughly encourage you to take a look into Klugh’s extensive back catalogue of LPs and concert videos. Even if the Latin stylings aren’t your thing, there’s a lot to be learned about jazz soloing from his playing. As always, let me know what you think, and enjoy the video!