Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rereading the Early Roman Empire

People often ask me why on earth I want to study classical history. Generally those who are most confused fall into one of three groups: those who don’t get Ancient History because they don’t see how something so distant could be relevant to them; those who think that there is nothing new and exciting to gain from studying ancient sources that have been used for centuries; and those who can’t grasp that History is more than just the a long list of names, dates and places.

Usually I give short answer to the people who ask me these questions and let them decide for themselves whether or not I am wasting my time and energy. However after having read these two books I am very tempted to give people in at least the first two categories (I don’t really know what to say to the last group!) the challenge to go and read one of these books!

Now, I am not saying that I would recommend them without reservation as a scholarly source: however both of the authors do a very good job of combining and interpreting the various sources available on the subject into a very readable and accessible narrative. You really don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate these books, and those unfamiliar with the time and place that the events described in the book take place in won’t get too lost.

One of the major advantages of books such as these are the way in which they are able to combine, compare and contrast the narratives of these events that we have from the surviving sources. Naturally this does mean that the authors tend to get caught up in some of the same lines of thinking as the original sources (either to reinforce or contradict them) and this means that you get a lot of analysis of the personalities and quirks of the individuals involved in the events described. Likewise when the sources disagree it becomes inevitable that the author has to make a choice for better or worse which source to trust (Morgan, for example, usually defends Tacitus as the more reliable source, with good reasoning). However the discussion about the sources and the ways that they complement and contradict each other is perhaps the best aspect of these books from a scholarly point of view.

Ok, so for you non-specialists out there who are probably bored to tears by now here is what the books are about: Matyszak’s book is about the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (aka. Caligula), Claudius and Nero), so named because they came from the union of two prominent Roman families, the Julians and Cluadians. The book offers a personal sketch of each emperor and their personality and ruling policies and styles, as well as some context about what we know about what was going on at the time.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the book is the way that the author seems to be almost consciously disagreeing with the main sources regarding the character of each emperor (he pretty much attempts to revive Caligula’s reputation and he is less than flattering towards Augustus, the usual favorite out of this group). Another aspect of this book that seemed startling to me was the author’s argument that the shift to Empire from Republic was both far from inevitable and represents an almost moral failing on the part of the people of Rome. The continual talk about the loss of democracy is clearly aimed at a popular audience, and seemed a bit out of place in a scholarly book.

Morgan’s book is about the transition between the Julio-Claudians and the Flavians that occurred around the year 69 A.D. Nero committed suicide once a rebellion against him in Gaul and Hispania seemed likely to succeed and a governor from the area named Galba became Emperor. However, Galba had made enemies while assigned to the provinces of Upper and Lower Germany and as soon as they found out he was emperor they proclaimed their general Vitellius as the new Emperor. Meanwhile one of Galba’s associates named Otho had assassinated Galba and taken the Empire for himself. Otho and Vitellius fought a war in the spring of 69, which lead to Vespasian (the commander of Roman forces in Judea who were putting down a Jewish rebellion) throwing his hat into the ring. Vitellius won the fight in Italy, but didn’t get much news about Vespasian until it was too late (the winds during the summer blow from the West making news from that area plentiful, but news from the east sparse). Anyway, after a whirlwind campaign Vespasian wins the war towards the end of the year and becomes the fourth emperor mentioned in the title.

As I mentioned above the best academic feature of this book is Morgan’s treatment of how the various sources depict the events associated with this period. Indeed we have a lot of sources, but really don’t understand everything that they tell us. One weakness I noticed in the book was a tendency to downplay the military aspects of the subject and portray the battles as almost foreordained outcomes with little strategy involved. I am sure that many other scholars disagree with this point, but I’ll leave it to them to sort it out.

I really enjoyed some of the little biographical snippets included in the book. For example the characterization of Galba by Plutarch as a “man who did not so much have virtues as lack vices” is a profound moral statement that I have already discussed with friends and coworkers, perhaps more than I should! I also enjoyed the leadership lessons found in the book. Perhaps it is training from reading the scriptures from an early age and applying them to my own situation, but I find some of the lessons in Vespasian’s success (aside from the tremendous amount of luck that he had) where Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius had all failed as being particularly universal in their application.


Anonymous said...

I love Rome too!