BMCR 2018.12.24

Primary Sources for Ancient History. Volume II: The Roman World

, Primary Sources for Ancient History. Volume II: The Roman World. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 2018. viii, 497. ISBN 9781480951440. $28.00 (pb).


For the student of ancient history, a good sourcebook is invaluable. Many of us, I expect, have memories (fond or otherwise) of the sourcebooks we used as students. In my own case, Michael Austin’s collection of Hellenistic sources guided me through my first ancient history course as an undergraduate.1 A few years later, Michael Dodgeon and Samuel Lieu’s sourcebook on Roman-Persian relations came to my aid when, as a PhD student, I realized how embarrassingly ignorant I was about that topic.2 Gary Forsythe’s sourcebook is considerably more ambitious than either of these. Indeed, over the course of two volumes, he seeks to cover the entire ancient world from the Ancient Near East to the coming of the Atilla the Hun. This vast timespan reflects his intended readership, which consists of undergraduates taking introductory ancient history survey courses and their instructors. For the most part, Forsythe’s book will serve this audience well.

A good sourcebook is necessarily a balancing act. It must be comprehensive enough to give a good overview whilst being selective enough to avoid being repetitive or overwhelming. It should allow the sources to “speak for themselves” as much as possible, whilst containing enough introductory material and critical apparatus to help students contextualize what they are reading.

Forsythe addresses the challenge of selection by being deeply conventional. His collection of sources includes all of the greatest hits of Roman historiography. We start out with Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, followed immediately by Livy on the end of the monarchy. From then on, the narrative history of the Republic is told almost entirely in excerpts from Livy and Polybius, supplemented by biographical sketches from Plutarch. Polybius is also utilized, as he should be, to explain the Roman constitution. Appian, Dio, Sallust, Caesar, Cicero, and Suetonius round out the sources for the late Republic. The section on the Principate begins predictably enough with the Res Gestae, but is more diverse than those on the Republic; in addition to Tacitus, we get the fascinatingly bizarre Apocolocyntosis, the outsider view of Josephus, and even some inscriptions (the first appearance of epigraphy in the book). Special sections on religion in the Roman Empire are especially well-judged and welcome, offering a diverse range of sources. The later Roman Empire is represented by the Price Edict of Diocletian, excerpts from Lactantius’ On the Deaths of Persecutors, bits of the Theodosian Code, and excerpts from Ammianus. A few examples of late Pagan culture would have been welcomed here, with Julian’s Misopogon being one obvious example.

Whilst I admire what Forsythe has included, I regret a few missed opportunities. I personally would have preferred an even longer timespan stretching further into late antiquity and stressing the continuities between Roman, Byzantine, and early Medieval history, in line with current scholarship on late antiquity. A more general objection is the scant attention paid to sources outside literary historiography. In particular, there is no visual material whatsoever. The only image is on the cover. Inscriptions are somewhat more prominent, but still neglected. It seems unnecessarily self-limiting at best to teach about the Roman army without looking at Trajan’s Column, imperial ideology without using coins and statuary, or popular culture without visual grafiti. It may be objected that the inclusion of images would have made this book longer and more expensive, and that it is the responsibility of instructors to supplement these readings with appropriate visual sources. The first objection is undeniably true. The second has truth in it, although this does limit the book’s usefulness to novice readers who are not enrolled in a formal class.

For the literary sources, the translations are not even in quality. In particular, too many are dated. This is an issue for today’s students, who in my experience often struggle with even moderately archaic language. The Letters of Cicero, for instance, are taken from a nineteenth-century translation, rather than from Shackleton Bailey’s excellent version. The humor of the Apocolocyntosis is not at its most readily evident in W.H.D. Rouse’s translation from 1913. In both of these cases, I assume the difficulty was in obtaining rights to more recent versions. It is less clear to me why the excerpts from the New Testament are presented in the King James Version.

Forsythe’s introductions are straightforward and lucid. The bibliography at the end of the book is a good selection of many of the most important works in English, although rather weighted toward traditional historical studies (there is virtually nothing, for instance, on gender). Instructors should know that this is a useful book, but one that requires supplementing.


1. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest (Cambridge University Press, 1981, revised 2006).

2. M.H. Dodgeon and S.N.C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars A.D. 226-363 (Routledge, 1993).