Posts Tagged ‘ancient rome


Book Review: The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian – Robin Lane Fox

Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To HadrianThe Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox

Written right on the cover of Robin Lane Fox’s book about the history of Greece and Rome is the word epic. It’s there three times, actually. I guess that’s a word which has lost it’s power in recent years, but it used to apply to the ancient world a lot, particularly to long poems by Homer and Virgil.

Neither of them really have a large role here in his book, but the sheer size and scope of Fox’s book sort of reminded me of them: he attempts to take a good 600-plus years of history, pretty eventful ones at that, and condense them down to 600 pages. He did a pretty good job, but it’s more of a casual history than something in-depth.

Lane opens his history with the archaic Greece of Homer, Hesiod and the rise of city-states (nothing, sadly on the Mycenaean era) and wraps up with the emperor Hadrian. In between, he looks at the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the rise of Rome and decline of Greek power, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty. He particularly writes with authority on the Roman years, especially when the last years of the Republic and the start of the Roman Empire. It’s all well and good, but it’s the kind of thing any textbook could have.

But where his book diverges is when it comes to literature and society, particularly in how they relate to the history he’s covering.

For example, his look at the first years of the Roman Empire is filled with references to the letters of the Younger Pilny, who he says produced the closest thing to an autobiography that’s come down to us. And the last years of the Republic are filled with references to the writings of Cicero: letters, speeches and works of philosophy. He uses these works of literature to show how people – at least the upper class, anyway – thought and felt, how they had to act publically and expressed in private.

It’s also interesting when he examines the roles of various forms of art, particularly portraits of people. What can the picture of a couple on a wall of a villa in Pompeii tell us about the people who lived there? What about the face of a boy painted on top of a mummy? There’s certainly some supposition, but Fox’s writing on what we know about these examples is fascinating stuff; I’ll admit to being a little haunted by the mummy portrait, too.

At the same time, his look at literature also jumps around and overlooks some people. Poets like Virgil and Horace show up a often, but others like Ovid and Juvenal barely show up at all. Lucretius, whose poem On the Nature of Things is arguably one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of Rome, is relegated to a single line.

But then again, he had only so much space to work with and condense into 600 pages. And there was a lot to cover. I’m reminded Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra, which tackled a similarly large, eventful era in a relatively small book. There was more ground covered there, but I think Fox did a similarly good job on this era. It’s readable, never gets bogged down in statistics or historical minutiae and should be pretty good for the general reader who’s interested in learning what happened so long ago and, more importantly, why we should know about it.

Rating: 7/10


Rome at the Brink: The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust

The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of CatilineThe Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust
(translated and edited by S.A. Handford)

The last years of the Roman Republic were a pretty wild time. Casear was running his army through Gaul, Pompey was battling out in the East and at home, there was discontent and riots. Two of the most interesting moments care rather early in the late period and were both covered by the same author in two short monographs.

Sallust was a senator and governor in these years. According to legend, he was wildly corrupt and made a killing before being asked to resign, when he retired to a private life of writing histories. Two of these have come down to us: one looks at the short war against Jurgantha, the other examines Cataline’s conspiracy to bring down the government in a coup. I can’t speak to Sallust the politician, but as an author, he’s an interesting one, if one that’s problematic.

Let’s start with the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha was a king in what’s now northern Africa and an ally to Rome, although someone who wanted power, which Rome wasn’t willing to give. He bribed people in the senate to overlook his naked power grabs as he marched up and down the country. He eventually ended up killing Romans and pissing off the republic, who sent an army down to deal with him. Sallust’s timeline isn’t exactly clear, but he generally follows as both Quintus Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Marius ran consecutive campaigns against him.

It’s pitched stuff. Roman armies come close to defeat, but pull out a win at the last moment. Roman leaders corrupt Jugurtha’s confidents, who then stage plots to kidnap and sell their king to Rome. Marius captures a city when a foot solider discovers an overlooked path that leads right around the strongholds. Finally, there’s an all-or-nothing battle where Jugurtha throws it all on the line and loses.

Meanwhile, the Catiline conspiracy is shorter, but even crazier. Catiline was “an ambitious careerist,” as Hardford puts it, who eventually decided he should rule Rome. After losing elections and seeing his enemy Cicero be elected to power, Catiline staged a conspiracy to put together an army and take Rome by force.

It wasn’t really all that crazy. At the time, Roman generals commanded a lot of personal power with their armies, who looked to them for everything from pay to a plot of land when they retired. And at the time, Pompey and his army were out in the far east.

In Sallust’s hands, it plays out like a morality play. Catiline corrupts people with his wealth and attracts all sorts of undesirables. Meanwhile, the upstanding leaders in Rome – Cicero, Cato and Caesar – investigate like detectives, debate appropriate punishments and set up resistance. Coming from a guy who was legendarily corrupt himself, seeing such moralizing is kind of funny. Although again: Sallust is great at setting tension and building a gripping narrative.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: he’s often confusing and misleading in his storytelling. At worst, he’s outright malicious and disingenuous. He places events where they have more dramatic impact, not when they actually happened. He gives people cool dramatic dialogue – “I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling down everything about your ears.” – but provides it at the wrong time (and, according to Cicero, gives us the wrong words, too!).

This is where a good editor like the late S.A. Handford comes in handy: he establishes the misleading errors, provides context and lays out a clear timeline in two introductions and keeps the taut, dramatic narrative intact. Even if Sallust wasn’t an accurate historian, he was still a pretty solid writer, although I’d rank him in a second class behind Livy (Previously reviewed: The Rise of Rome (Books I-V); The War With Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX); Rome and Italy (books VI-X)  or Tacitus (Previously reviewed: The Annals).

Rating: 7/10

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It’s (Not Quite) All True: Josephus – The Jewish War

The Jewish WarThe Jewish War by Josephus 

(trans. G.A. Williamson, revised with notes by Mary Smallwood)


Generally, the winning side wrote Roman history. When Carthage and Rome clashed or when Caesar ran amok through Gaul, Hannibal and Vercingetorix didn’t get to tell their sides of the story. Instead we know it through Caesar (previously reviewed here) and Livy (previously reviewed here, here and here). Essentially, the Romans wrote their own stories, either as propaganda, popular history or for moral teaching. Hell, they even made up their own origin story.

Indeed, the few ancient writers who’ve come down to us generally came through the Romans somehow, from their adoption of Greek history to the Byzantine Empire’s preservation of writers through the dark ages. Everything has a bit of a Roman spin to it. Which makes Josephus’ history of the Jewish War so interesting.

Continue reading ‘It’s (Not Quite) All True: Josephus – The Jewish War’


A Fresh Take On Aesop

Aesop's FablesAesop’s Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs

With so many different versions of Aesop’s Fables, it’s probably futile to say one is the one to get. But still: if you’re only going to get one collection, you can’t go wrong with the Oxford World Classics edition.

For starters, it’s about as complete as you’re going to get. It collects 600 fables, taken from sources as diverse as Ancient Romans like Babrius and Phaedrus to Medieval manuscripts by Ademar and Odo of Cheriton. It’s a much wider cross-section than other collections (Penguin, for instance, has less than 400 fables in their “complete” collection). It has all the ones you remember, from the boy who cried wolf to the tortoise and the hare, but it has dozens most are likely unfamiliar with.

Here’s where this collection’s second strength comes in: the editorial work of Laura Gibbs. Not only has she translated all 600 fables into clear and modern English, but she’s gone a step further and organizing them by subject. All the fables about gratitude are lumped together, separate from ones about judges and ones about foolish gods. As a result, it’s a less haphazard read and makes it easier to navigate, especially if you’re looking for one in particular. She’s also supplied each with it’s Perry number, making it easy for people who want to compare it to Perry’s untranslated Greek and Latin edition. She’s also provided some useful footnotes and a nice introduction.

What about the fables themselves? They’re a blast, running the gamut from witty to instructive. Most offer at least some practical lesson – it’s not hard to see why so many people become familiar with them as children – but nearly all of them have a clever little turn of phrase or joke in them. Indeed, there’s a few sections included here of Aesopic jokes. One of my favorites has Diogenes getting insulted by a bald man and replying :

“Far be it from me to make such insults. But I want to complement your hair on abandoning such a worthless head.” (pg 268)

There are others I enjoyed, like Aesop and the Soothsayers or The Fox and The Stork. And there’s a ton you’ll recognize: the story of two pots, the snake and the farmer or the one about the goose who lays golden eggs.

The big drawback here comes from it’s sheer bulk. There’s so many fables that reading it cover to cover makes them all feel kind of samey after a while: some are variants, others just touch on similar themes. I found that reading them in a row led to some of them all blending together after a while. This is book that’s better read piecemeal, dropping in here and there for a fable or two.

Rating: 8/10. Even though they can blend together, this is as good a collection of Aesop as I know of. It’s bulk blows the Penguin and Signet editions out of the water, it’s translation never feels watered down or meant for children and it’s cheaper than the Loeb edition.  Recommended!


A Fresh Take On An Ancient Story: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

Well-researched and well-written, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra is a fascinating read about a figure who, for all her fame, remains sadly elusive.

After all, everyone knows the outline of Cleopatra’s life: an Egyptian queen who slept with Caesar and Mark Antony, then when Octavian subdued Alexandra, she killed herself with an asp. People as diverse as Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare have thrown her under the bus as a witch, whore or worse. And for nearly as long as she’s been dead, her story was used to illustrate what happens when a female corrupts someone great: nothing good.

Of course, Cleopatra was none of those things. And Schiff’s biography aims to set the record straight.

It’s a tough job. Even the ancient biographers and historians didn’t like her too much, although it should be said they wrote for a Roman audience and under patronage that Cleopatra fought against. So even from the get-go, the sources weren’t sympathetic. And thats where there are sources: there simply aren’t many for Cleopatra’s early years. Consequently, Schiff has a lot of holes to fill and not much to fill them with.

She does an admirable job. In a biography that’s a little short on definite conclusions, but heavy on showing multiple ideas for what could’ve happened, she recreates what she can of Cleopatra’s life and tries to put it into a greater context. Her early years are a mystery, but it’s known she was exiled when her brother Ptolemy XIII seized the throne. A civil war ensued and Rome found itself embroiled in it after Caesar found himself after Cleopatra emerged from a sack in front of him. Later, she’s emerge as sole ruler of the Egypt as it’s empire expanded to it’s largest size. She funded Roman conquests and one half of a civil war, having children with two of it’s most famous citizens.

But at the same time, she was a conniving queen. She was ruthless to people who stood in her way, killing two of her brothers and a sister. She often tried to play sides against each other and alienated those close to her, fuelling her downfall. And her feud with Herod would make an interesting book in itself: he was alternately supporter and enemy, eventually an active participant in her downfall.

That downfall is a dramatic story, the narrative backbone of this biography. It reads a little like a history of Rome in this period, going from the troubles at Rome when Caesar was assassinated, to the bombastic speeches of Cicero to the war between Antony and Octavian, climaxing with the battle of Actium. It’s helpful to people without a lot of knowledge of those turbulant times. And while she defers to a wide variety of ancient sources – Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Josephus, among others – she’s always careful to present their biases, too.

She’s right to. This book clearly sets out to try and restore Cleopatra’s reputation or at least strip away some of the propaganda. There are centuries of it. One example Schiff uses is when Cecil B. DeMille pitched her role by asking an actress “How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?”

To that end Schiff was successful: in her pages, Cleopatra comes alive as a queen who was astute and rich, able to connect to her kingdom in a way few leaders can and who, sadly, fell for the wrong man at at the wrong time (spoiler: she dies).

Rating: 8/10. While some might object to the lengths Schiff goes to in calling out ancient sources and the leaps of faith she makes (there are a lot of holes in Cleopatra’s life, let alone her motivations), it helps cut through the noise and lets one of the most remarkable personalties of the ancient world come through. Recommended, especially for history buffs.


Rome’s Most Fascinating Enemy: On Livy’s History of the War Against Hannibal

The War with Hannibal (Books XXI–XXX of The History of Rome from its Foundation)The War with Hannibal by Livy (trans. by Aubrey de Selincourt, edited with an introduction by Betty Radice)

A huge history of the Second Punic War, Penguin’s The War With Hannibal is composed of ten books of Livy’s giant history of Rome and covers one of the wildest periods of ancient history, when in a span of a few years Rome went from near-defeat to it’s biggest victory to date.

Although Rome and Carthage had engaged in war earlier in the third century BC, it’s the Second Punic War that most are familiar with. And for good reason: it has some of the most compelling personalities of the ancient world commanding armies against each other: Roman generals Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus facing off against the Carthaginian general Hannibal. This time, Rome and Carthage clashed for a little over 15 years all over the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece to Northern Africa, with the tide constantly flipping. It’s a period Livy captures well in these books.

It’s less a modern history than something like a historical novel, as Betty Radice writes in the introduction. Livy lived far after these wars – some 200 years, actually – and relied more on books than first-hand evidence. Sometimes, he even names those authors. And like many of the ancient historians, he recreates speeches for the major players here, putting words in their mouths to the effect of what he thought they said (or should’ve, anyway). Asking it to comply to a modern standard is missing the point: Livy was one of the most popular historians in his day and it wasn’t because he was razor-sharp in his facts.

Where he stands out is in the drama and tension he puts into these battles, the colours he dresses up his stories with. He doesn’t tell us that Hannibal crossed the Alps, he tells us about soldiers falling off clips, elephants struggling against the cold and Hannibal’s ragged troops being besieged by mountain tribes. The battle of Cannae didn’t end with the Carthaginian troops picking off survivors, but with a cold-blooded massacre:

“Here and there wounded men, covered with blood, who had been roused to consciousness by the morning cold, were dispatched by a quick blow to the head as they struggled to rise from amongst the corpses.”

His skill makes the main figures of this book come to life: Fabius is cautious and his reluctance to risk everything in battle keeps Rome’s hopes alive after disastrous losses at Cannae and Lake Trasimine; Scipio is young, a little arrogant and more than a little clever. Barely into his 20s, he takes control of an army nobody else wants and rips off successive wins, eventually taking the fight to Carthage in the decisive Battle of Zama.

And there’s Hannibal, always somewhere on the page. He’s a unique mix: a smart general, a well-spoken orator and a hell of a pest. Even as he’s broadly portrayed as an enemy of Rome, he still comes across as the most compelling person here. He just about leaps off the page, able to turn the Roman’s front lines into disarray with his war elephants and catching legons off guard with shrewd manoeuvres. My favourite was when he tied torches to riderless donkeys, tricking the Roman legions into thinking Carthage was abandoning it’s camp, and mopped up Romans who came to loot the camp.

In a sense, the book shows the rise and fall of Hannibal. He comes riding across through Spain, crashes through the Alps and sets his sights on Rome. After routing the Romans, he even encamps at the city’s gates. But he never makes the final move, instead turning to the idea of defeating Rome by splitting it’s Army apart and wearing it into submission. This move never quite works and before long, he’s fighting to reclaim territory he only just won. After years of inconclusive combat, he’s recalled in time for a final showdown against Scipio; the two even had a brief conference before the battle.

But the history doesn’t focus on them: it ranges from long battles in Sicily to Greek allies fighting against the Macedonian forces of Philip V to Roman disasters and victories in Spain. By ancient Roman standards, this was a total war, with the entire known world in conflict.

The translation by Aubrey de Selincourt is pretty fluid and reads well. It’s not often that it it seems stiff or overly formal. He falls back on a few idioms occasionally; I don’t speak Latin, but I’m pretty sure Livy never said an army was “at sixes and sevens.” Meanwhile, Radice’s introduction is decent (if a little short) and her notes help make sense of some of the more obscure/inaccurate parts of Livy. The maps in the back helped out a lot, too, and there’s a helpful index.

Rating: 7/10. Livy, like all the ancient historians, can be a bit dry at times. Still, I think it’s worth the effort: it’s a monumental history and reads much more like an epic than his near contemporary Polybius. Recommended, especially for ancient history buffs.


Tacitus – The Annals of Imperial Rome

The Annals of Imperial Rome

An account of the tumultuous years of the early Roman Empire, Tactius’ Annals are compelling, fascinating and important reading for anyone interested in this era of history. Written several years after the decades described, Tacitus’ histories take you inside the troubled senate, the chaotic world of the Emperors and the riotous city of Rome.

While it’s primarily a history of Rome, The Annals covers what was happening in the empire from disastrous battles with natives in Gaul or Germany to the feuding kingdoms on Rome’s borders. It’s primarily a political history, heavy on the declining role of the Senate (which Tacitus is often dismissive of, calling them sycophants) and the increasing powers of freedmen in the Emperor’s court. It’s not uncritical – Tacitus really lays it on Tiberius and Nero – it’s a little more even-handed than Suetonius; it doesn’t delve into gossip or lists of depravities.

Instead, it’s a history about how Rome’s losing itself in success and decadence, slowly changing from what brought it to power into a state of lax morals, oppressive government and posturing among officials, each out to make themselves look good without any care for the state. It reminded me a lot of Thucydides, although it’s not quite as dry.

There’s many parallels to the Greek historians here, from Tacitus’ proclivity to inventing speeches that express the sentiment of the speaker, if not their actual workds

The main drawback is how fragmented the history is: while most of it’s come down to us, it’s still incomplete: the first part cuts off before the reign of Caligula and is also missing the first part of Claudius’ years in power. The second part is a little more complete, but cuts off during Nero’s reign, before revolts in Spain and his flee out of Rome.

The translation by Michael Grant is clear, well annotated with footnotes, maps and other helpful details (the glossary’s a nice addition) and his introduction helps set the scene for this book, although I’m not sure how up to date it is.

Rating: 9/10. Out of all the primary sources from this period of history, Tacitus’ is not only the most influential – he was read and interpreted by everyone from Montaigne to the founding fathers of the U.S. – but he’s a constantly enjoyable read, too. Even on a straight-up read, this is a lurid, colourful history of Rome at the height of it’s powers. Put another way, it’s a version of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius that actually happened. It’s a fascinating look at an important period of history and Penguin’s edition is well-suited for even the causal reader. Recommended for anyone interested in ancient history.