Book Review: Ten Ceasars

Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors From Augustus to Constantine, by Barry Strauss

I get the feeling that this author, a noted midbrow classicist whose works I am generally fond of and familiar with [1], could have written this book in his sleep or as way of getting a book to press while researching a more ambitious project in ancient history. At any rate, a reader looking at this book who is familiar with Roman history is going to recognize this book as a “good parts” history of the Roman Empire as the title states, between the age of Augustus and Constantine. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author sticks generally to the high points of Rome, such that seven of the ten Caesars that the author focuses on are in the Julio-Claudian, Flavian, and Adoptive Emperor period, with only the two most obvious choices that take place after the Third Century Crisis, which the author passes over completely, as well as the period of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Again, as I commented earlier, this is a high points study of the Roman Empire, and it is different from most accounts in that it is more obvious about which emperors the author considers to be important and in its treatment of the Severan Dynasty, which is usually ignored in this sort of account, and that alone makes it worthy of reading, even if much of the ground covered is familiar to someone who reads a lot about Roman imperial history.

This book is more than 300 pages long and it begins with an author’s notes, chronology, and maps. After that the author divides his area of study into the reigns of ten emperors. The author begins with Augustus, and then moves on to his adopted son Tiberius, then skips over Caligula and Claudius to talk about Nero and the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. After that comes Vespasian, giving the author the chance to talk about the Flavian dynasty. A discussion of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius gives the author the chance to talk about the greatness of Rome during most of the second century, when it was generally viewed as being at its peak. After this the book is mostly done, which gives the author the chance to talk about the Severan dynasty, which reigned during the last part of the second century AD to the first two-fifths or so of the third century, after which Rome had a major crisis which was only brought to a temporary close by the greatness of Diocletian and Constantine, where the book ends with a discussion of Constantine that is generally positive. After this it includes notes, an index, and also, rather helpfully, a family tree for the dynasties it talks about, which is useful when you’re trying to differentiate between your various Germanicuses and Apollionas.

It is clear that this book is not being written for someone who already knows a lot about the period between 45BC and 360AD or so, but rather for someone whose knowledge of the Roman empire is not particularly great and who is in need of a brief refresher course about the most popular and noted Roman emperors during the higher periods of that empire. The author leaves the discussion of the decline and fall of Rome to other writers, and focuses on what was going on when Rome was great. It is unclear what sort of lessons that the author is trying to draw, but he does mention the personal lives of emperors as it relates to marriage, children, and relationships, as well as the relationship of many emperors with the military, economic matters, and Christianity. The end result is a book that is a compelling read if a somewhat basic one in many respects, and one whose evaluation will depend in large part on how the reader feels about the author’s moralizing and his critical view of the writing of ancient historians whose source material he simultaneously uses and also mistrusts.

[1] See, for example:

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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