The Roman Empire still holds quite a sway in modern imaginations and culture. Gladiator and the tv show Rome are only two examples of its pop culture hold, and we still quote what may, or may not be, actual Roman lines. Rome is still important to us, and in this book, covering the beginnings of the empire up to the death (roughly) of Commodus, Beard shows the reader what it was like to live in Rome. This is a book about Rome the empire, but also Rome the people. What did it mean to be a Roman citizen?
It is an overview of the period, and it covers a huge swath of time, so don’t expect to be reading about every detail in the life of Augustus, or Claudius. And I think it works well if you have some familiarity with the history. Its been years and years since I studied anything about Rome, but that knowledge, hiding somewhere in my brain, certainly helped with my reading of this book.
Which isn’t to say that it is an overly academic book, it isn’t, it is a popular history book. And it is very readable. Almost too readable in parts, because, I don’t know about you, but for me, sometimes have a complex read forces me to slow down and take in the facts better than something that doesn’t need to be translated into words my brain understands.
It is also a book that is full of quotable lines, such as
It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not.
If you have an interest in Roman history, then this is a very good place to start, or even to continue. Although a word of warning, if you are anything like me when you are reading about good old Augustus you’ll be picturing the TV version, not to mention James Purefoy when Beard is talking about Marc Antony.
That is actually one of the things I really enjoyed about the book, how Beard shows us that all we think we know about Rome may not be true. And this goes double when talking about their enemies, or indeed the Romans that ended up on the wrong side of history themselves. That line about victors writing the history certainly comes into play.