Book Review: Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome:  The Rise And Fall Of An Empire 753 BC-AD 476, by Patricia Southern

What are the borders of antiquity?  In reading this generally excellent book, it was clear that at some point the details about the Roman state became more full, and even if one could not necessarily believe all of the lurid stories that are given, it is clear that we have moved from the areas of myth and tradition to something that we can recognize as history.  To the author’s credit, this book does not linger on the more salacious details about Roman history that one can find easily in the sources that we have for us, but it is a sober and generally positive work that keeps within very restrained borders and provides a surprisingly brief summary of a long span of Roman history extending longer than a millennium from the semi-legendary founding of Rome to the absorption of the Western Roman Empire into the various Germanic successor states that were rising up in the Western Mediterranean.  In between the author has relatively little to say about matters of religion but a lot to say about political matters.  Indeed, the brevity of the account is so profound that a great deal is passed over very quickly and somewhat superficially, which is in my mind the book’s biggest flaw.

This volume contains about 350 pages or so of material in sixteen chapters that cover more than 1000 years of Roman history.  The book begins with a preface and acknowledgment and a note about dates before the author begins with a discussion of Rome during the shadowy monarchical period from 763 to 509 BC or so (1).  After that the author discusses Rome as a fierce neighbor in its expansion in Italy from 509-290BC (2).  This leads to a discussion of the Republic’s strength in dealing with foreign enemies (like the first two Punic Wars) from 290-201BC (3).  After that the author discusses the period from 201 to 133BC when the Roman Empire began to dominate the Mediterranean (4).  After that there is a discussion about the reforming zeal that hit Rome at this time (5) from 133-83BC, the stress of rival generals from 83-48BC as the Republic neared its final crisis (6), and the civil wars that ended the Republic (7) from 48-30BC.  After that there is a chapter on the reign of Octavian Augustus from 30BC to 14AD (8), the Julio-Claudian emperors that followed him from 14-68AD (9), the expanding empire from Vespasian to Trajan from 69-117AD (10), and then the empire working within its limits from 117AD to 193AD (11).  After that the book races through the trials of the third century Roman crisis from 193-260AD (12), the fragmentation of the Roman Empire from 260-284AD (13), the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian one from 284-324AD (14), the early Christian Empire from 324-395AD (15), and the transformation of the Western Empire and the survival of the East from 395-476AD (16), after which there is a glossary, bibliography, illustration credits, and an index.

When one is seeking to write a book with mass appeal that keeps to a very limited page count, one’s options when seeking to write about the broad scope of a millennium are going to be correspondingly limited.  Going broad means one cannot go very deep, and there are wide areas of history that are passed over here without a great deal of discussion.  Indeed, there is a great deal that this book simply does not cover, whether one is dealing with social or religious history or most matters of economics.  This book is focused deeply on matters of diplomacy and politics, politics in particular, and in these areas the author provides a narrative history that is generally pleasant.  If you wanted a single-volume Roman history in your library because you were getting quizzed by, say, a pastor at church who really loved his classical history, this would be a good book to read if mainly to grasp the names and bigger narrative picture of Roman history without having to delve too much into deeper and more obscure matters with a reasonable length.  Reading a book like this can allow to at least understand references about Rome that are being made by most people without having to look too much at more scholarly or difficult terrain.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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