This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about periods in history this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month one. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)
This month was a bit surprising in that I the parts I thought I would enjoy the most and the parts I thought I would enjoy the least were somewhat reversed. Let me start by saying that I wasn’t ignorant about Rome before I read this month. I took a gazillion years of Latin in middle school and high school, and I’ve even read Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin. Not well, mind you (I’ve got a great story about the AP Latin test where I mixed up a mountain and a tree, and… forget it).
I’ve also always loved the architecture of Rome, and am well versed on the period of Cicero, to Caesar, into the emperors. That said, there was still plenty to learn.
I started the month with Mary Beard’s SPQR, which is every bit as good as everyone says it is. She begins the book by focusing on Cicero, which is a great idea, and then backs up to the beginning (Romulus and Remus!) and moves forward through the emperors. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and she does it fairly well. One of the things I appreciated the most was how she spent time talking about how we know what we know. There are no videos or news reports, obviously. Much of what we get is through what was written down and survived. It’s critical to remember that there were no printing presses. Things has to be hand copied or written many times.
One of the reasons we know so much about Cicero is that, as a politician, he would print up many, many copies of his speeches. He knew not everyone would come to hear him, so he had some infrastructure to write those things down and distribute them to people. Smart. Also, good for history.
A couple key players in history also spent a lot of time writing their memoirs. That’s why we know so much about them. If you didn’t take the time to do that… well, then you have even less control of who tells your story.
Beard’s book gives you a pretty good sense of the time, and does a good job of making you realize that life in ancient Rome, while certainly more precarious than now (politicians get killed way too often for comfort and you spent a lot of time fighting in wars), it was also reasonably comfortable at times. More on that in a bit. She also reminds you that the periods we focus on (Caesar +) are only a blip in the history of Rome.
Next I read Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm, which I wish I’d read first. That’s because his book focuses on the period right up to Caesar et al, and is a much more in depth history of Rome before what we know. I mean WAY more in depth. There were a hell of a lot of wars, and a hell of a lot of political intrigue before the Republic.
Side note – one of the things I also got from these books was that Kings and leadership didn’t pass down through family (ie sons) the way we seem to assume they do now. The ancient Romans would have thought that was ridiculous. How do you know kids can rule as well as their parents? That idea came along much, much later, and it was somewhat surprising to me.
I was also stunned at how interesting the whole setup of government was as the republic took shape. Very corrupt, but also very stable.
On the other hand, the discussion of political norms, and how those were slowly chipped away (in both books) hits a bit close to home at times. The political maneuvers ring true in a number of ways, and there’s a lot to make you uneasy. Still, you are much less likely to get killed while trying to vote or get elected today than you were then.
Next up was Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Gibbons. I didn’t like it. Too dry. I tried and tried, and then decided to move on and come back later. So I moved on to The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins. I was somewhat unprepared for how interesting the fall of Rome would be.
I used to think of “civilization” as meaning big buildings, big armies, and a stable government. But it’s the economic stuff I took for granted that mattered. Because roads were so good and trade was so robust, people would stop trying to specialize locally. The would get amazing pottery from far away, for instance, so why bother to make it close to home. Food moved all over, so you didn’t need to farm as much. But as the empire collapsed, so did its trade. You couldn’t get that pottery anymore. You couldn’t get cheap and easy food. The quality of life of pretty much everyone dropped dramatically, not just in how much money they had but in what you could actually obtain. People had to go back into farming or starve. I wasn’t thinking about the fall of civilization properly.
And THAT’s why I’m even more excited for March. I want to read more about that, and how people pulled themselves back up. It was also good to sit and think about how the world’s superpower that hung around for like 1000 years completely fell apart. Why? I want to know more about that and what came after. On to March.
Oh, I tried to go back to Gibbons again at the end of the month, and still couldn’t fininsh the book. I know it’s a classic. Sorry.
tl;dr: If you want to focus on history up to the fall of the republic, read Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm. Mary Beard’s SPQR, is more of a broader review of Rome from the beginning through the emperors, but also great. More Fall of Rome next month.