Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp

17248762This book, from 2011, tries to give a sense of what life was like for non-elite Romans: the poor, slaves, freedmen (outside the high profile imperial ones), soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and just ordinary men and women.  The sources here aren’t as dramatic as those for the trials and tribulations of the imperial family or high ranking senators.  There is a lot of reading between the lines in literature (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon for instance), more esoteric works (Artemidorus’s dream interpretations) or funerary inscriptions.

This meant that it ended up covering similar ground with other books I have read recently – Jerry Toner’s How To Manage Your Slaves (which I was sure I had posted on – that may have to be written), Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, and Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians.  With this, the sections on “ordinary men” and slaves in particular rehashed a things I had already read.  The other books mentioned above have greater depth to them, and weaved the ideas and quotations into greater themes.  In comparison this book had a wider range, but skipped through each topic rather quickly.

Some of the chapters on society’s fringe groups were more interesting for me – much of the material on soldier, prostitutes and gladiators was new to me.  Again, it was rather dry compared to some other authors – the material is set out there and the reader is often left to come to their own impressions and conclusions.  This does have its advantages, being allowed to actually read through selected portions of the sources is rather nice.  There are interesting discussions on how to judge material based on its intended audience, especially on topics like sexuality or societal roles.

As with many of the other books mentioned, there are generalisations here – material is taken from across the span of the empire – in both time and space.  Often from 1st and 2nd century Rome or Greece, but also from Egypt or Palestine (the bible does pop up as an occasional source).  This is understandable.

Overall, it’s a very well put together work.  It’s probably more informative than enjoyable, but it is definitely an accessible and extensive introduction to an area that is only starting to come under the spotlight.


I am slowly trying to make my way through some of the old Greek and Roman sources.  Juvenal isn’t exactly a historian, but I decided to try my luck with him.  Some of the lines are famous:

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Who guards the guards themselves?

“panem et circenses” – Bread and circuses.

“Mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body

It all seems so high brow!  I wasn’t really expecting the constant stream of sexual insults that fills up the rest of it.  He does tackle big issues: poverty, morality, immigration (he’s not a fan of Greeks), wealth and class; but he doesn’t pull many punches.  Some of the homophobic bits in there are particularly shocking (and intended to be so).  It’s actually quite an enjoyable read (I have Peter Green’s translation for Penguin Classics) but probably not for the fainthearted.

Decline and Fall of Roman Britain by Neil Faulkner

As I often do, I skipped the preface to this book and went straight into the main text.  Because of that, it was only about half way through that I realised Neil Faulkner was a Marxist – all the references to class war finally started to make sense.

In this book, actually charting the whole history of the Romans in Britain, this approach has advantages and disadvantages.  Roman society was undeniably full of inequality and, in an otherwise dry book, Faulkner does succeed in bringing that to life.  His descriptions of the settlements, showing the disparity in wealth, are bolstered by plenty of archaeological evidence.  His explanation of the effects of Diocletian’s economic reforms is much more vivid that I’d thought the history of taxation could be.

On the downside, his conclusion, that the end of Roman Britain would let a peasant revolt kick out the landlords and live a brief but ideal agrarian society before the Saxon warlords moved in, comes across as far fetched and lacking any real basis to back it up.  His descriptions of the Roman empire outside of Britain are short and one-sided, mostly existing to show either Britain’s role in the empire or the inequality in the system.

I’m not as well read on Roman Britain as I should be, but this stands as an interesting if occasionally uneven take on that particular fringe of the Empire.  Worth reading, but perhaps best balanced with an alternative point of view.

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

During the last days of Republican Rome, the battles in Spain between the rebel general Sertorius and the Roman legions of Pompey, Metellus and others are often relegated to a bit of a sideshow.  This book by Philip Matyszak puts them centre stage.

I rather like these books by Pen & Sword, they can occasionally be a bit uneven but they often cover topics that others don’t.  This is definitely on the better end of the scale.  The writing is accessible,   The maps are useful – with ones showing relief, rivers, settlements and ethnic groups – all relevant for the campaigns that follow.

The book begins with Sertorius as the focus, covering his earlier days as a Marian general and giving a sense of his character – loyal, honest and level headed.  After the return of Sulla, we see Sertorius forced out to Spain where he allies with local tribes and drives off the forces sent to remove him.

Without really delving into the politics of Rome, Matyszak shows how Sertorius could initially hold hopes of a shift in domestic politics allowing him home.  This was an interest thread, he was a Roman and presented himself as a legitimate Roman governor, but he fought alongside Spanish tribes and was linked with potential alliances to Mithradates and other enemies of Rome.  It was a thin line to walk, made possible only by continued military success.

On the military side of things, the high point was a series of brilliant victories against the young general Pompey (later to be “the Great”).  Rome however was able to resupply and replenish its armies, and Sertorius’ subordinates did not always perform as well as their leader.  Decline inevitably set in.  Matyszak sets this against the rise of Pompey, with his style marked by the memory of those defeats and his sons to later fight against Caesar in the Iberian peninsula.

This is a very readable account of Sertorius’ wars.  This topic is often skimmed over in popular histories of the late Republic, but there are plenty of wonderful details and the easy, relaxed tone of the book reminds me of Tom Holland’s Rubicon.  It probably doesn’t work as a stand alone book – too much about the politics and characters of Rome is left unsaid – but it is well worth reading if you have already enjoyed a more general history of this period.

Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision by Pierre Hadot

Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening).  He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome.  He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions.  And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.

However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down.  There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it.  Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work.  In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.

Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity.  His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.

Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.

The Empire Stops Here by Philip Parker

Subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers of the Roman World.  Author Philip Parker describes the borders of the Roman Empire region by region, giving detailed descriptions of Roman settlements and the history associated with the region.  The initial chapters focusing on the Britannia and Germania are a bit of a blur of forts and long drawn out wars with raiders.  Further east and round the Mediterranean, however, things improved as Parker describes the clash of cultures and changing Roman military fortunes 51ymhrzutkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_with great colour.

Unfortunately I’d hoped for more of a travelogue in the style of William Dalrymple or Tim Mackintosh-Smith.  Parker has clearly viewed most of the remains himself, it shows in the vividness of his descriptions, but the few tales of modern travel that he tells add wonderful texture to the historical detail – being prevented entering a Bavarian forest by 21st century “barbarians” with hunting rifles, for examples.  It feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.

There are various themes running through the book, archaeological evidence of religious changes reoccurs  – particularly the personal mystery cults, like Mithras or Isis, popular in the third century.  On the whole however, it can feel a little bit mixed up.  You could definitely learn a lot about the later Roman empire here, but it’s far from conventional in order.

Overall there is a grand sense of scale.  The photographs included in the book are beautiful and the detailed geographical descriptions bring the sheer size and variety of the empire into focus.  The sites that I am familiar with are there – the remnants of Roman Cologne, the Saxon Shore defenses on the south coast of England – and they are almost as impressive on page as they were in reality.  The sites that I have not visited (most it, to be honest!) are just moved further up my internal list of holiday ideas.

The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant

I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion.  Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era.  His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.

The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag.  The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time).  The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over.  This all comes to make sense later.

The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion.  He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation.  In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.

This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point.  Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe.  Was this the true peak of the Roman empire?  Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point.  Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.

Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Explaining jokes is a sure way to remove any comedy from them.  Luckily this book is quite a serious take on Roman attitudes to humour.  Beard discusses what the Romans found funny and why, how we can identify humour in ancient sources, and what this tells us about their culture.

She admits that attempts to construct a general theory of laughter are always flawed, so there is no attempt to make one here, but there is a review of previous explanations from the time of the Romans onwards.  The humour has the same range that we might find nowadays, from the practical jokes of cruel emperors, witty one-upmanship between rivals, to reference humour and puns in the theatre.  They find bald people and monkeys hilarious, and there’s endless jokes about absent minded academics and regions of the empire.

The humour can sometimes be hard to identify, if we know there’s a joke we may find ourselves searching in vain for puns, when the comedy may be based on elements of social or political culture that simply haven’t passed down to us.  Or, of course, the joke may just be a poor one.  It’s almost impossible to tell the delivery of the jokes. Finally, casual jokes on topics like slavery or crucifixion in particular stand out as somewhat (but not entirely) alien.

Some jokes, however, don’t go out of fashion. The joke below has been recycled from the time of Augustus to Sigmund Freud and Iris Murdoch.

There came to Rome a man who looked very like the emperor.  Augustus ordered the man to be brought to him, and asked “Tell me, young man, was your mother ever at Rome?”  “No,” he said.  He then added “But my father was, often”.

Roman humour, as with so much of the culture, has been developed over the centuries into our own modern day socieities, so it’s so surprise if some of it still seems like one we’ve heard before.  This book provides some food for thought on how we can relate to ancient societies, and is probably as much of interest to fans of anthropology or psychology as fans of classical history.

Imperial Brothers by Ian Hughes

Valens has a poor reputation as a Roman Emperor. Given that he presided over the disaster at Adrianople, this is understandable. This book goes some way to suggesting that although he could never be classed as a great emperor, he was a competent man who momentarily lost control.

Book CoverThe book starts at the last days of Julian’s reign and runs through the rule of Valentian I and his brother Valens.  Throughout most of the book Hughes takes a methodical, almost annalistic, approach.  The military campaigns and major events of each year are briefly described.  This is quite a dry style, but it does pay off when the author begins to draw conclusions later in the book.  The battle of Adrianople, and the campaign around it, is covered in more detail in the last few chapters.

Continue reading Imperial Brothers by Ian Hughes

The Severans by Michael Grant

Book coverA short post here on a short book.  Michael Grant was a classicist with a reputation for writing short and popular, but comprehensive, books on Rome and this volume from 1996 is no exception.  He condenses the fifty event filled years of the Severan dynasty (and the brief reign of Macrinus) into under ninety pages.  The structure of the book is thematic rather than narrative, and chapters on finance, literature and art give perspectives often forgotten in more story-driven popular history.

However, the brevity of the book can be an issue.  Chapters on the law, the army and the infamous Severan women could perhaps do with more elaboration and often seem to be expecting the reader to be working from an already advanced position. Grant clearly has some interesting things to say, but he doesn’t do himself justice at this breakneck pace.  Some of the climactic events of the period are also brushed past in a somewhat underwhelming way, making the narrative chapters seem a bit uneven.

It’s certainly meant to be read as part of a wider reading list and used as a launching off point for further exploration – and in that it does a decent job.  On its own, however, it does nothing but whet the appetite and occasionally make me wish I’d be a little more prepared before jumping in.