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 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.
There have been many, many books on the end of the western Roman empire; do we really need another? According to Bryan Ward-Perkins we do. He asserts that many recent historians, in their quest to re-examine the so called “barbarian” cultures of the Germanic invaders, have went too far and lost sight of the idea that the fall of Rome was a bad thing that severely impacted the lives of the (former) Roman citizens. He quotes various academics in articles portraying the invasions as a peaceful restructuring of the empire or a gentle transition period.
Personally, having stuck mostly to popular history, it seems like BWP is overstated the prevalence of this and that this may be a little bit of a straw man for him to argue against (any scholars out there in WordPress-land willing to share their own views on this?) but, despite these disagreements, he remains complementary and respectful of these historians so I’m willing to go along with him. I’ll come back to this overview and his conclusions at the end of my post, but for now I will cover his attempts to briefly explain and his idea of the empire declining and ending primarily due to violent invasion.
Continue reading Post 34: The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins
The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire
In this book, one of my favourites of recent years, Anthony Everitt covers the early days of Rome, both fact and fiction, in a light conversational style. The title suggests a certain symmetry with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall but this work is nowhere near as weighty (or radical). There is a bit of symmetry however in the timeline; it goes from Rome’s earliest days to the end of the Republic – not quite to the start of Gibbon but perhaps close enough to show the authors intentions. It is the early Republic however that gets the most focus. For me this is a highlight as I’ve read plenty on the likes of Pompey and Caesar, but the earlier days with mythical figures like Coriolanus or Cincinnatius often seem to be neglected. His previous books had typically been biographies – Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian – and this one does keep an enjoyable focus on characters even if there’s very little to go on. It’s not that the wider social factors are neglected, but Everitt seems to understand that a focus on individual personalities and anecdotes can help draw the reader deeper into history. This love of characters and myths is tempered by plenty of caveats and disclaimers about the reliability of these early Roman myths but, being from a literary background, Everitt is happy to run through these stories nonetheless.
Continue reading Post 32: The Rise of Rome
Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
I’d been looking forward to this book for a while, drawn to it by an attractive cover and by the chance to fill in some gaps in my knowledge between the end of the western Roman Empire and the middle ages proper. Written in 2010 by Hywel Williams, and published by Quercus, this book covers this period in detail and tackles issues in the development of culture, nationality and religion. There’s less said about Charlemagne the man than one might expect from the title. I’ve covered a few books about a single character on this blog and there have been a number of different styles: Alcibiades got a very straight biography, while John Hawkwood was used as a tool to tell a broader history, and Mark Antony received some sort of revisionist argument. Charlemagne doesn’t really get anything – the focus is instead on the big themes of his reign and those of his dynasty; the book would probably have been more accurately titled Empire of the West. It is centred on his reign and we do get a vague chronological order through his life but the nine chapters are separated by these topics.
Continue reading Post 31: Emperor of the West
How Venice won and lost a naval empire
This book by Roger Crowley, published in 2011 by Faber and Faber, tells a narrative history of the Venetian overseas empire – so essentially a time span of ~1000 to ~1500 with the changing interactions with the dying Byzantine Empire, the rising Ottomans and the wars with the other Mediterranean trading powers. Crowley is a very good writer of narrative history, particularly in his field of Mediterranean naval warfare circa 1400. This book can in some ways be seen as a natural companion to 2005’s Constantinople: The Last Great Siege and to 2008’s Empires of the Sea. Those charted the fall of Constantinople and the ensuing battle for the remaining christian strongholds in Cyprus and Malta. This book on the other hand is a step backwards in time, giving the run up to those struggles from a Venetian perspective.
Continue reading Post 10: Venice: City of Fortune