Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.07

Giovannella Cresci Marrone, Lorenzo Calvelli, Francesca Rohr Vio, Roma antica: storia e documenti. Manuali. Storia.   Bologna:  il Mulino, 2014.  Pp. 379.  ISBN 9788815251770.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Robert Matijasic, Juraj Dobrila University of Pula (

Table of Contents

The volume under review is a textbook for university students of Roman history and persons interested in the subject. It is written by three experienced lecturers and researchers at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy. The chronological frame is canonical, spanning from the mythical foundation of Rome to the end of the Western Empire. It is organized into 23 chapters (aptly numerated in Roman numerals) with brief descriptive titles. The work has been uniformly divided between the authors so that Cresci Marrone wrote chapters I-VI and VIII (from the foundation to the 3rd century B.C. and the chapter on Roman society between the 3rd and 2nd century B.C.), Rohr Vio chapters VII and IX-XV (from the conquests of the 2nd century B.C. to the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and Calvelli chapters XVI-XXIII (from the “year of the four emperors” to the fall of the Western Roman Empire).

The division of chapters is largely conventional and the sequence chronological, so there is no need to discuss or question the minor differences that could be found in a detailed comparison with similar textbooks. The main aim of the authors, as stated in the Introduction, was to “furnish an exhaustive picture of Roman history but also to show ‘how’ the historical processes are reconstructed”. To do this, the authors opted for the use of inserts, graphically divided from the main text but integrated in the overall discursive frame. The inserts present the main archaeological and historiographical sources in order to point out some of the main tools a Roman historian has at its disposal. Historical sources and illustrations of physical objects (inscriptions, coins, papyri, architectural monuments, statues and other art objects) are placed throughout the book, although, as is natural, the former prevail in the early chapters (remains of huts on the Palatine, the relief with the image of the sulcus primigenius, the Lapis Niger, inscriptions on pottery, aes signatum, the early inscriptions such as the Fasti consulares etc.). Notes on coins and inscriptions are interspersed rather profusely also in later chapters.

Among passages and fragments of ancient historiographical texts we find in the early chapters, of course, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch (Life of Romulus), Polybius, Diodorus, but also Servius, Festus and the jurist Gaius. Such inserts are always used to present specific historiographical questions, and line maps are inserted to illustrate the physical space in which Roman history evolved. For the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire the authors do not shy away from using Plautus and Virgil, but the main sources are the well-known historians: Sallust, Velleius Paterculus, Dio Cassius, Appian, Caesar, Tacitus and Suetonius. In the last chapters we find Herodian, the Digest, Aurelius Victor, but also the earliest church historians, such as Cyprian, Eusebius, Rufinus, Lactantius, Zosimus, Symmachus, Ambrosius, Salvianus and Orosius.

The propaedeutic and didactic purpose of the textbook is stressed in the Introduction, with a clear warning that history is never written in a definitive way and that Roman history should be studied in toto in order to be able to grasp the whole subject as a prerequisite for a specialization within ancient history. In this sense “Roma antica. Storia e documenti” is a very good starting point.

Another feature of the textbook dictated by its purpose is to dispense with a bibliography and offer only a Sitografia, a brief overview of the main internet resources for the study of Roman history deemed reliable by the authors. The list is rather short but appropriate for the purpose of the textbook, and it includes sites in Italian (, Roma Aeterna) as well as others in French and English. One of them (Best of History Websites) gives a more exhaustive list of other sites so that the user can widen the research in other directions. Most useful is the online version of the Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines de Daremberg et Saglio. For historiographical texts there are The Latin Library and Perseus Digital Library, for epigraphy the internet addresses of the most important databases (EDR, EDH, EDB, Clauss), as well as of some specific sites for numismatics, papyri and legal texts. Finally, reference is given also to the Année Philologique and Gnomon online editions.

Returning to the pedagogical purpose of the textbook, it should be noted that at the end of each chapter there is a brief list of questions related to the preceding section, using which the reader can test his/her comprehension of the main features in the text. The questions are well balanced and based on the teaching experience of the authors, and are a useful resource for self-assessment. Another convenience is the accessibility of the whole textbook on the internet platform Pandoracampus. The reader with a hard copy of the book can log in using a unique code printed on the inside of the cover. The code can be used only once, and the registration lasts 12 months, so that the publisher has safeguarded its site from multiple users. For today’s students, accustomed to using the new technologies, this is a welcome bonus, and the use of the electronic version is enriched by the interactive use of a Latin-Italian glossary by clicking on the highlighted Latin words and phrases. Considering that Latin is nowadays taught in elementary and high schools less intensively, even in Italy, this feature is a sign of the changing times. If it encourages someone to study Latin more closely, it is of course worth it. The same logic seems may explain why the fragments of ancient historians are presented in the inserts in the Italian translation only.

There are very few typographical errors and only minor objections to some details.1 These blemishes do not diminish the historiographically correct contents of the textbook, with balanced conclusions that often include the explanation of diverging opinions in the academic world. The clarity of the style is impeccable, as it should be in a text conceived for students. The keywords, phrases and chronological points (years and centuries) are highlighted in bold characters in the text, so they immediately catch the eye of the reader, allowing him/her to quickly orient himself when rereading the text in order to memorize its contents.

Of course, the authors admit that a textbook covering more than a thousand years of history must by necessity be selective of topics (events, themes and problems) considered more relevant than others. Nevertheless, they justly note that the textbook consisting of 379 pages is the indispensable minimum for acquiring a general knowledge of Roman history The final sentence in the Introduction warns the reader that the textbook has not been written for historians, but for students, and the authors hope that “they will find it a useful tool for maturation and growth”.

One among many Roman history textbooks written in almost all European languages (and some extra-European), this book is clear-cut and helpful for the target group: university students who will find it useful and practical as a broad overview of a complex and intricate subject-matter, cleanly displayed, interpreted and illustrated.


1.   For example, the sites where the copies of the Res Gestae have been found are given as “… Ankara, Antiochia, Apollonia of Pisidia…” (p. 213), but it is not obvious that both Antiochia and Apollonia are in Pisidia. Or one could express disagreement with the statement that in the first two centuries AD “… the Roman economy continued its traditional agricultural vocation, which was based mainly on slave labour …” (p. 277).

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