Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.59
Richard Alston, Aspects of Roman History, 31 BC-AD 117. Second edition (revised edition of 'Aspects of Roman History, AD 14-117', published 1998). Aspects of classical civilisation. London; New York: Routledge, 2014. Pp. xxiii, 455. ISBN 9780415611213. $39.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University (email@example.com)
In his preface to the revised edition of Aspects of Roman History (first published in 1998), Richard Alston outlines the volume’s aims: to update and revise a text with a narrower chronological focus (AD 14-117) and older intended readership (those undergraduate students already committed to studying classics and ancient history) (p. xi); and to move beyond a preoccupation with political and institutional history characteristic of the late twentieth-century history syllabus (p. xii). Driven by a desire to transmit ideas as much as information, and cognizant of the important role academic writing performs in setting out why knowledge and understanding of the past informs the present, Alston sees his role more than anything else as a social historian, “provok[ing] questions about one of the most revered and imitated institutions of world history, the Roman Empire” (p. xiii). Encompassing a broader periodization (which takes into account the formative transitional years of the Augustan age) and speaking directly to a digital-savvy, why-should-I-study-the-past audience, Alston’s revised (indeed, substantially rewritten) book hopes to engage actively and explicitly with those discourses of power, structures of domination, and social processes that underpin the imperial ages of Rome and the modern world.
Many BMCR readers will be familiar with Alston’s original volume. In what follows, I confine my observations to the rewritten elements of the text. In this regard, what is new about Alston’s overview of a century and a half of Roman history is, naturally, what he and his publisher point to in justifying a second edition; but it is precisely what makes Alston’s book so extremely useful, both as a tool for learning about the Roman empire—its rulers, society, economy, administration and government, army and military policy, family and gender relations, religion, and the process of Romanization—and as an artefact for reappraising the role of scholarship in formulating how, what, and why we learn about such matters.
As before, Alston introduces his readers to the main events of the period and an outline of the major issues, arranged by emperor. To the list of previously canvassed personalities (from Tiberius to Trajan), he adds two chapters which contextualize all that is to follow: a synthesis of significant developments in Rome (the city and the broader socio-political entity) prior to the advent of C. Iulius Caesar Octavianus (pp. 1-34) and a detailed examination of what eventually comes to be known as the Augustan principate (pp. 35-92). Constituting in length almost a third again of the first edition, these chapters establish Alston’s rhetorical rhythm and interpretative cadence—he is consistently as interested in how the historical events (comprising individual choices and community traditions, embedded within a very specific socio-cultural and political landscape) inform contemporary questions about governance, culture, and identity. If, for example, we live today under the sway of new imperialisms (legal, constitutional, religious, and so on), what do the Gracchi, Marius and Sulla, Cicero and Clodius, Julius Caesar, and, preeminently, Octavian/Augustus tell us not just about the historical operation of Roman politics and the relationships between republic, triumvirate, and principate, but also about the nature of corruption and good governance, the differences between ideological and personal politics, and the ongoing shifting consensus of scholarly perspective?
This collaborative partnership—namely, utilizing the methodology of social history in tandem with a critical awareness of the workings of power across all facets of human experience—plays out both in relation to Alston’s rehearsal of material pertaining to the thirteen principes from Augustus to Trajan (Ch. 1-10, pp. 1-272), and with respect to human relationships other than the purely political (Ch. 11-17, pp. 273-428). As a result, Alston’s approach accommodates more than simply supplementing the study of original source material, exposing some of the problems in studying this material, and establishing the political and constitutional background of the principate (though each of these in isolation or taken together should not be undervalued).
Of particular utility to an undergraduate cohort—coming to terms, as they must, with the problems adhering to historical evidence pertaining to the imperial period and the methods of the major sources of evidence—is Alston’s straightforward prose and the ease with which he communicates inherently complex ideas and concepts without ever losing sight of his academic purpose or the fledgling apprehension of his intended readership. He navigates with clarity the minefield of Augustan scholarship, addressing (and rightly so) the extent to which this plethora of interpretations obscures as much as illuminates the reality underscoring the transformations of the first princeps. So, too, instead of the brief overview of sources and methods inserted at the beginning of his first edition (pp. 2-11), Alston provides a spectrum of methodological entry-points—integrated throughout his chapter-length treatments of individual rulers—which afford an opportunity to appreciate the extent to which emphasis on character, attitudes towards social relations, and unstated paradigms of political and cultural power predicated on the elite status of the authors mitigate reader-response and interpretation: e.g. the origins (and authenticity) of the Tacitean construction of Tiberius; the nexus of family, freed, and politics under Claudius; Nero’s blurring of art, politics, and power; the realities of socio-political and moral ambivalence associated with the otherwise black-and-white absolutism of the ‘tyrant’ (whether imperial, fascist, or communist); and so on.
In a similar vein, Alston’s adoption of a holistic standpoint admits to and foregrounds the historical importance (and contemporary relevance) of exploring issues arising from Rome’s polyglot experience: social systems (orders, institutions, networks of power) (Ch. 11); economic structures (agricultural productivity, exploitation of land, the labour force, distribution of wealth, urbanization) (Ch. 12); administrative mechanisms (the emperor, the senate and magistrates, the provinces) (Ch. 13); military organization (soldiers and civilians, strategy and policy, models of empire) (Ch. 14); constructions of gender and sexuality (the family, men and women, affective and reproductive relations) (Ch. 15); religious expression (civic and private cult, polytheism, shifting traditions of belief and practice) (Ch. 16) and the process of Romanization (how persons, communities, and states became Roman, and what kinds of cultural exchange this process negotiated over time) (Ch. 17).
Alston has retained the range of maps and figures from his first edition, amending in large part the captions of the tables supplied rather than the detail. In relation to the last category, the author has omitted one of the original tables (Table 1.2: Main powers and titles of Augustus), developing and incorporating the tabulated information into his Chapter 2. Usefully, Alston has added individual chronological lists of historical events, inserted at a strategic point in the broader narrative of Chapter 1 and otherwise topping each chapter keyed to a particular ruler. Conversely, I should note that the copy of the book I received for review displays a perplexing diversity of infelicities—in the main, the absence of conjunctions or connectives, affecting adversely not so much the clarity of discussion as undermining the fluidity of Alston’s prose. These omissions are, sadly, on the order of a word or two per page, but mercifully confined for the most part to the new chapters (1 and 2).
The book concludes with a brief (and basic) glossary of terms, a slim but informed guide to further reading in English, and an index of names and topics (pp. 429-55).
All in all, minor typographical issues aside, I would commend this revised edition of Aspects of Roman History 31 BC—AD 117 to anyone interested in engaging young (or enquiring) minds with the transformative history of the early imperial period, provoking an exchange of views in relation to the historical and intellectual significance for our age of a range of ideas and issues first promulgated under the aegis of post-republican Roman rule, or in need of arguments speaking to the relevance of studying Roman history in the digital century. There will, I am certain, be any number of voices raised in dissent over Alston’s choice of topics or to matters of emphasis or omission: but that, of course, is precisely his raison d’être—provocation in service to participation, moderating the ongoing debates that make history present to us all.