This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007. Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached. It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those. I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments. More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this. Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.
Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad. This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians. As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.
In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire. There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact. In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones. Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.
The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill. It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate. On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers. I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.
I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion. And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.
The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire. There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully. There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written. His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.
The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation. It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement. It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.
As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role. This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome). It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless. The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources. This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.
The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot). Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in. The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary. The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.
Would I read more of the series? Probably. It did pick up as I got further into the book. The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go. One to check out from the library.
I picked up this collection from my local library. It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest). As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined. This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.
Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.
There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface. It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.
*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.
As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn. The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.
I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes. I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.
I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past. They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books. This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.
Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant
According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.” As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character. Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen. In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal. As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods. He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour. In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.
In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life. Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters. The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.
In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine. In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.
Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day. There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality. Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed. Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.
In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired. Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator. Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?
This 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.
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.