BMCR 2005.06.04

A History of Rome. Translated by Antonia Nevill; preface and new material by David Cherry; additional material by Donald Kyle

Marcel Le Glay, Jean-Louis Voisin, Yann Le Bohec, A history of Rome. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. xxvi, 592 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 1405110848 $34.95.

Teachers and students of Roman history know how difficult it is to integrate social and cultural institutions within the political narrative of Rome from its beginning to (roughly) the mid-4th century C.E., the typical end point for most such surveys. The third edition of A History of Rome (hereafter E3), a substantial and much welcome revision of the 2001 edition (hereafter E2), is an important contribution to this end. There are entirely new essays on Roman spectacles, the Romanization of the provinces, and the sources for Roman history. The coverage of the Late Republic has been expanded significantly, and a section dealing with the early history of the city of Rome has been revised to incorporate new interpretations of the archaeological record. Finally, the bibliography has been updated, retaining the convenient thematic groups of the previous two editions. E3 successfully walks the line between the needs of undergraduates and more advanced students of Roman history. Despite shortcomings that are unavoidable in a work of such a large scope, E3 holds its own among other important surveys such as A. Ward’s A History of the Roman People (2002 edition), M.Cary and H. Scullard’s A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine (1975), and M. Grant’s classic History of Rome (1978).

The book is divided into three main parts, each including various chapters and subdivisions. Part I, ‘From the Origins to the Empire’ (3-160), begins with Italy before Rome and ends with the immediate aftermath of Actium. Part II, ‘Rome Master of the World’ (163-397), in many ways the core of the book, covers the period from Augustus to the murder of Severus Alexander in 235 C.E. Part III, ‘Another Roman World’ (400-512), is a brief survey of the 3rd to 5th centuries, ending with the Ostrogoth Theodoric in Rome, and Byzantium as the surviving and transformed version of the Roman Empire. Since the second edition has been discussed in great detail by B. Lowe in BMCR 2001.03.29, I focus here on the new and revised materials by D. Cherry and D. Kyle, which add greatly to the usefulness of the volume.

Acknowledging the modern fascination with Roman spectacles, ‘even after Superbowls and World Cups’ (345), E3 provides extensive essays on Roman public entertainment (triumphs, festivals, celebrations, games) with emphasis on gladiatorial combats. It traces the development of spectacular violence (esp. gladiatorial violence) from its Etruscan funerary origins to its wide popularity after the battle of Cannae (78-83), discusses diverse spectacles (gladiators, triumphs, chariot racing, beast hunts, etc.) as tools of political advancement in the Middle and Late Republic (103-107; 140-148), their institutionalization by Augustus and later emperors (214-221; 345-357), and concludes with their decline in the wake of Christian influences (357). This excellent survey adopts multiple perspectives, examining the Roman fascination with bloodshed as a complex anthropological, sociological, political, and psychological phenomenon. The authors suggest that the intense militarism of Roman society throughout the Republic, the cultural adaptation of Romans to earlier rituals of sacrifice and condemnation, the gladiatorial ideology planted by the participation of slaves in the battle of Cannae, and the use of war captives as performers lie beneath the allure of gladiatorial and other brutal (for our standards) entertainment. The notion of spectacular violence as ingrained already in ‘the military and political context of the Middle and Late Republic’ (83), rectifies the automatic connection between cruel spectacles and sadistic emperors popularized by Hollywood toga dramas or, more recently, by R. Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Perhaps spectacles of naval warfare, particular to the empire, could be added to this discussion. K. Coleman’s 1993 article ‘Launching into History: Aquatic Displays in the Early Empire’ ( JRS 83: 48-74) can be recommended as a starting point for the costly and imaginative re-enactments of historic naval battles.

Another significant revision of E2 is the new and/or expanded discussion on topics of the Late Republic, including the imperialist policies of Rome in the Balkans, Germany, northern Africa, and central Asia Minor (97-100), the reforms of the Gracchi (111-114), the war between Pompey and Caesar, and the latter’s dictatorship (130-140). E3 provides additional information and detail missing from E2 and edits the existing narrative for style and, consequently, interpretation. For example, all titles containing the word ‘intervention’ (e.g. ‘intervention in Africa against Iugurtha’, E2, 93) have been simplified (e.g. ‘the war against Iugurtha’, E3, 97). The most notable shift to a moderate viewpoint is the discussion of the Gracchi. The decidedly hostile take against them in E2 has been replaced by a more balanced interpretation. The E2 title ‘The Gracchan crisis’ ( E2, 100) has become ‘The Gracchi’ ( E3, 111). Strong statements such as ‘Tiberius became a dangerous revolutionary’ and ‘downright provocative’ ( E2, 102) have been excised. E3 presents both the view of the Gracchi as ‘demagogues and careerists’, and that in which their motives are considered ‘a genuine desire to improve the welfare of the Roman people’ (113). Similarly, the previous presentation of Mithridates as a villain, in 11 lines ( E2, 93), is now a two-page discussion including his invited expedition to Athens and the pact between him and Sulla at Dardanus ( E3, 99-100).

Another entirely new section discusses the social and cultural process of Romanization (326-329). E3 cautions against sweeping definitions of Romanization as a spontaneous and collective assimilation of provincials into Roman culture, and makes sensitive distinctions between degrees of Romanization in the city and country, the upper and lower classes, and the solid material record and the elusive ‘provincial sentiment’ (326). It proposes that cultural patterns in the provinces were transformed mainly among ‘the wealthy urban elites’ (328), while rural life must have changed little or not at all. Finally, the very term ‘Romanization’ is questioned, because it assumes a unilateral absorption of Roman culture as opposed to the more complex reality of interplay between Rome and its provinces, particularly after the 2nd century C.E. Nowadays, with issues such as globalization, international assimilation, and cultural supremacy heatedly debated, this opportune discussion provides ample ground for reflecting on the continuing relevance of Roman history, inside and outside the campus. Because this informed discussion relates to provinces throughout Roman history, it could be relocated earlier in the book (perhaps before the conquests of the 2nd and 1st century B.C.E., 85-102) instead of its present place (the provinces during the Antonine Empire, 312-326).

Smaller revisions are found in a section on the archaeology of early Rome (17-36). This chapter is prefaced by an expanded introduction stating that recent discoveries lend more credibility to the literary record than has been commonly assumed (17). Here, entire paragraphs or sentences have been interjected into the previous narrative, dating the earliest huts on the Palatine in the first half of the 8th century (19), discussing the presence of 10th and 9th century burial sites in Latium compared with their absence from Rome (19), and underlining the cultural impact of the Etruscans on religion, politics, and material culture (29-30). E3 integrates Livy’s account of Roman topography with modern land survey (20) more extensively and persuasively than E2. Completely new is also a three-page introduction (xxi-xxiii) categorizing our sources (inscriptions, papyri, documents etc.), a section particularly useful to new students of Roman history. Finally, explanatory notes have been added to the figures photocopied from other books (58, 132, 211, 315, 402, 477, 488). This is a most welcome addition, since the reader of E2 was provided with a map of Rome or the floor plan of a building with numbered sections but without a key. All these new materials are clearly organized, insightfully argued, and eloquently articulated, improving significantly the overarching historical perspective of the book.

On the other hand, organizational and stylistic shortcomings remaining from E2 render E3 a somewhat uneven read. The book often discusses material culture (art, architecture, inscriptions etc.), claiming its importance for the argument in question but without providing images of the relevant materials. Without illustrations, however, references to works such as the warrior of Capestrano (7), bucchero vases, (22), the Pyrgi Tablets (48), the Maison Carrée at Nmes (227), the Great Cameo of France, (240, 249), the Sarcophagus of Portonaccio (308), the Table of Banasa (309), the bronze tables of Vipasca (333), the Lambaesis inscriptions, (295, 343), the four-façaded arch of Leptis Magna, (381, 383), the bas-relief of Bishapur (420), the Scaptopara inscription (422), the house with the cachette (475), or the ivory diptych of Monza (507) become little more than onerous or trivial details. Instead of these items, interesting but often irrelevant illustrations are presented. For example, the picture of a 1st century C.E. tombstone (244) is set squarely between two separate discussions of the Great Cameo of France featuring Tiberius and Livia (240, 249). This leads to extensive image searching, not an easy task since there is rarely reference to a museum or a CIL number. Conversely, omission of important artifacts can also create confusion. Claudius’ speech for the introduction of Gallic chieftains in the senate, surviving in both the bronze ‘Lyon Tablets’ ( CIL 13.1668) and Tacitus’ Annals 11.24, is referred to as a ‘speech, known through a papyrus, in which Claudius urges the senators not to be puppets’ (242). Claudius’ request to the senate regarding the Gallic chieftains is briefly touched later (254), without a hint that the text of this request is the speech mentioned a few pages earlier.

Another misstep is that often terms are introduced without definition, or are explained much later in the narrative. Thus for example, technical words such as condottiere (23, 25) cappellaccio (25), cippus (30), ius auxilii (189) subsiciva (271) or concepts such as Gnosticism (475) and theurgy (482) are never explained. Others, such as Donatism and henotheism, are explained long after they have been introduced (Donatism: 438 and 492-3; henotheism: 438 and 484). More experienced readers can probably work out these meanings from the context, but it is distracting to search in vain the glossary and indexes for these definitions. Equally puzzling are the numerous phrases in quotation marks which have no sources cited (e.g. 39, 86, 87, 169, 187, 241, 271), and the attributed quotations that make obvious points, e.g. ‘The foundation of the Empire produced considerable changes’ (C. Nicolet) (180).

Finally, this reader was often under the impression that the English sounds unnatural or vague. One reads that political transformations in early Rome occurred ‘with events as their handmaiden or midwife’ (39), that the Second Macedonian war ‘signed the birth certificate of Roman imperialism’ (87), that Roman literature in the 2nd century B.C.E. was ‘lustily proclaiming and refining the virtues and vices of Rome’ (121), and that the traditional institutions of the Republic ‘lay prostrate, their vigor spent’ (183). Throughout the book, the equestrians are referred to in the rather antiquated term ‘knights’, and the word ‘lese-majesty’ is used to denote the trials of maiestas, or treason trials (238, 243, 270). Such instances are explicable given that the book is translated from French, which is rich in subclauses and idioms. However, these flaws now become more marked because they contrast with the new materials in E3, where the text flows with great clarity of thought and precision of expression.

E3 is aesthetically improved from E2. Artwork, feature boxes, plans, and maps appear lighter, accentuating the details in the black and white images. The capital letters of the introductions to the individual chapters have been replaced with small script italics, saving space and adding uniformity to the page. The typographical errors identified in E2 by Lowe have been corrected, except anciet for ancient (183).

In spite of its difficulties, E3 maintains a good balance between a general survey and a deeper analysis of Roman history, combining a traditional biographical and factual approach with thematic discussions of socio-political developments and institutions. I highly recommend all the new materials for both personal research and classroom use, and I am looking forward to a more normalized version of the remaining sections.