BMCR 2021.12.16

Ancient Rome: an introductory history

, Ancient Rome: an introductory history. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 297. ISBN 9780806164779 $26.95.

The book under review takes the reader on a journey from Rome’s mythological times to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, covering those decisive political and military events that formed the Roman Empire. Paul Zoch’s main objective is to ‘present a traditional, chronological history of ancient Rome illustrating the major and minor themes, events, and personalities through generous selections of Latin literature and other original sources in English translation (…) [which] offer high school students and general readers greater accessibility to the factual history of ancient Rome’ (ix-x). This is not at all an easy task, but all things considered, Zoch delivers on his promise.

The book’s 297 pages consist of 19 illustrations, three maps, 28 short chapters, a bibliography, and an index. The book begins with a short linguistic introduction on the relationship between Latin and English, which underlines that the book is a well-suited companion for beginner language classes. Chapters 2 to 4 then treat the foundation and early kings of Rome, including a presentation of the traditional myths and the archaeological and literary evidence thereof.

Chapters 5 to 11 cover the fifth and fourth century. Most of the chapters (5, 7, 9–11) discuss specific events, such as the Roman defeat at Veii, the siege and sack of Rome, the three Samnite wars and the Great Latin War, while the rest tackle more thematic subjects: Chapter 6 is devoted to the Roman government, the importance of different magistrates, the senate, and the assemblies of the people; Chapter 8 covers the patron-client relationship, the Twelve Tables, and class conflict in general in early Roman society.

Chapters 12 to 15 narrate the military successes of the Romans in the third and second century. Zoch deals with Rome’s victory in the Pyrrhic Wars and how it incorporated new territories into the Republic (Chapter 12), the First Punic War and the concluding peace treaty and its consequences (Chapter 13), the Second Punic War with its numerous battles and endgame in North Africa (Chapter 14), and finally Rome’s engagement and success in the Hellenistic East, which is followed by some concluding considerations on the development of Latin literature in the period (Chapter 15).

Chapters 16 to 22 are—compared to the number of pages allocated to other periods—a rather detailed narration of the downfall of the Republic. Chapter 16 covers the ambitions of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the resistance they faced, and the importance and meaning of their proposed reforms. Chapters 17, 18, and 19 focus on the war against Numidia, the professional army of Marius, the civil wars both against allies and between Sulla, Marius, and Cinna, and Pompey’s rise to power primarily due to his military success in the East. In Chapters 20 and 21 we reach the first triumvirate, and these pages include a discussion of the possible motivations of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, the political situation in the middle of the first century BCE, and the essential elements of Caesar’s program. Chapter 22 details the consequences of the death of Caesar, the second triumvirate, and the endgame in the East between Octavian and Antony.

The last four chapters take the reader from the principate to the second half of the second century at a very fast pace. Zoch covers the system introduced by Augustus (Chapter 23), the Julian-Claudian emperors (Chapter 24), the Flavian emperors (Chapter 25), and the culmination of Pax Romana with Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Pius, and Aurelius (Chapter 26). In a short afterword, Zoch briefly sketches the historical development until 476 when Odoacer proclaimed himself the ruler of Italy. Throughout these chapters, Zoch provides small discussions of the most important Latin literature and historiography of the period, including Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Lucian, Quintilian, Martial, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius.

The specific focus on contemporary sources is a great feature of the book. Zoch himself notes that ‘Roman culture and values are usually best revealed to the novice not through scholarly discussions, but through the Romans’ own literature and descriptions’ (x), and the book shows very well that this statement is cogent. By being introduced to longer passages from the ancient textual tradition, the general reader can glimpse the shaky house of cards we all build when trying to reconstruct Greek and Roman history. Livy is the consistent source throughout the book, and it only adds further to the merits of the text that Zoch occasionally finds space to quote other contemporary sources as well, e.g., Polybius (p. 38), Sallust (p. 135, 152, and 172), Cassius Dio (p. 168), Cicero (p. 182 and 212), Plutarch (p. 191), Horace (p. 221), and Tacitus (p. 244).

As the book covers around 1,000 years in under 300 pages, decisions on which events to exclude and which periods to downsize must be made. Yet, the decision to allocate only a few pages to the Empire (56 out of 297) is a bit surprising, as those are the years many general readers will connect to an introduction to Roman history. Of 26 chapters only four engage with the period from the principate, which could raise some issues if the book is to be used in classes. Furthermore, due to the sketchy nature of the narrative one could have hoped for more dates, maps, and tables to guide the general reader through the many different events and names. This point is especially important in those periods where space and prioritizing only allow very brief and cursory treatment.

As one would expect, the focus is entirely on Rome’s military and political history presented in a linear fashion (with some well-placed sections on Latin literature en route). Therefore, those expecting this subject to be treated in a novel manner will be disappointed. The intended audience is those with no prior knowledge of ancient Rome and for that reason all scholarly discussions have been omitted. While Zoch defends this decision by arguing that this ‘would only disrupt the narrative [and] distract the student, who cannot be assumed to have the scholarly background necessary for understanding the discussion’ (x), I would have expected (and preferred) that Zoch had included at least a few of the most well-known scholarly debates. This means that there is nothing new for the specialist to gain and it therefore makes little sense to compare the book to more established university textbooks such as Grant, Boatwright, or Ward et al.

With that being said, the text is concise, straightforward, and the narrative is very well presented. Zoch is an experienced educator (he is the author of Doomed to Fail, on the American education system) who knows how to choose a theme and not to lose sight of the essentials key points which he wants his reader to absorb. The book constitutes a sound foundation for those intending to take up the study of Latin, which is made evident by the recurring focus on linguistics and Latin literature, as well as those requiring a starting point before tackling something heavier.