If you were to recommend one book to introduce ancient Rome, specifically the demise of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, which book would you recommend?
Feel free to share more than one recommendation, but let me know which one is your favorite.
Also, if you have time to tell me why it is your favorite I’d like to hear that as well.
What are you trying to achieve from a book of Rome? If simple history, any overview of Rome will do (Freely available, I recommend the classic “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“. It’s old but fairly true, and truth doesn’t age; besides newer scholarship isn’t nearly so comprehensive, and really only augments bits.
However, if your goal is to understand Rome vis-a-vis Paul’s Gospel outlook, meaning its role as foil in the Gospel, I am critical of the approach of simply looking at Rome (as you know). Rome was a successor power, so why stop at Rome? Before the Roman Empire was the Seleucid Empire, and this Greek Empire, is in many ways more important than Rome. To understand Biblical History or Israel’s relationship to beastly nations why not go one more step back and look at the Seleucid Empire?
Or better still look at a survey from the Medo-Persian Empire (which inherited the House of Israel) through to the Parthian Empire into the Seleucid Empire right up to the Roman Parthian wars (which ultimately we responsible for sifting the House of Israel through the nations). This is the history behind Paul’s concern for the nations; it explains his perspective against Rome; it is the History behind the History of the bible.
While I like Andrew’s further suggestions about the scope of your study, the idea that you should read Gibbon is absolutely ludicrous. I’m an Oxford Ancient and Modern History finalist, and Gibbon is excellent (though ‘fairly true’ is probably a tiny bit generous), but totally unsuitable for Brian’s purposes – both in terms of practicality and in terms of period. Brian is asking for a book on 1st century BC Rome, and, just, well, the suggestion of Gibbon bemuses me.
My overwhelming recommendation would be to go for Ronald Syme’s ‘The Roman Revolution’. The book is simply magisterial, and it perfectly covers Brian’s request for material on the transition from Republic to Principate. Seriously, it’s like reading Tacitus reborn – you get everything: the depth of scholarship and detail, the atmosphere and the engrossing narrative of this period is astonishing. It IS complicated, though still extremely readable, but that is only because of the complexity of the period. It IS 70-odd years old (*ahem*, as opposed to nearly 350…) but it remains THE pre-eminent introduction to this topic for academics at all levels.
Get it, read it, love it. You might then need to refine your study with more specialised books geared towards your area of study – Andrew discusses those questions much better than I could. However, purely for what you’ve asked, Syme is by far the best.
Go with Rick’s advice. I’m not an Oxford Ancient and Modern History finalist, so likely couldn’t defend my recommendation to go with Gibbon in a brawl about sources …
(That and I’ve never heard a book called ‘magisterial’ before. How can you possible ignore a book denoted ‘magisterial’?)
I don’t have a recommendation per Brian’s request, nonetheless, excellent books are Maurice Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome, abridged, translated by C. Porter and E. Rawlings, with J. Routier-Pucci, Cambridge, MA/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-674-01683-1; and Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East, 31 B.C. – A.D. 337, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-674-77885-5.
I’m not the Rick who posted at 9.25 this morning, so I’m not the Oxford finalist here… but I actually DID sleep in a Holiday Inn Express this weekend!
Could you suggest any good ancient sources Brian could read?
I remember enjoying the Gallic War when I read it at school (a set text in Latin), but it’s clearly a little biased. Anything more impartial that could give him a flavour?
I’m not going to top some of the experts here, but if you want to get a IMO brilliant sense of how it might have felt, Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa (Gordianus) fiction series charts the slow decline of the Republic through the first half of the first century BC with imaginative reconstruction,powerful story telling and an eye for historical detail with attention to the social contexts
Andrew, thank you very much for your comment! Perhaps ‘magisterial’ is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but seriously, it’s excellent.
As to Simon’s touching on sources, this is slightly more problematic. Sadly, bias is fairly inescapable, so in a sense, Caesar is just as usable as any other. Basically, it’s completely dependent on Brian and what he is trying to gain from reading primary sources. For purely literary sources which are relatively straightforward, he’s probably going to be limited to the relevant ‘Lives’ of Plutarch, a couple of Suetonius’ biographies, and then some Cassius Dio. All of these can be found on the internet, obviously.
However, the problem is that these sources are actually limited, in a sense, when it comes to trying to do c1st Roman history. We probably learn just as much, if not more, from epigraphs, coins, buildings, art and snippets of poetry, and this is where it becomes impossible to recommend things without further direction from Brian. Essentially, the picture of our evidence for this period is that we know loads and loads of really detailed stuff, but decent ‘broad-brush’ things are more difficult.
How does that sound?
Glad to see this post–I will be studying this over the summer.
I’d say Cicero’s De Re Republica is obligatory.
And by that I mean De Re Publica!
Andrew: Nothing specific. I just want to read a good book that provides a solid overview of that period. Usually, from there, I can delve into other interests.
Rick: Thank you for recommending Syme’s work. I’ll look into getting that one!
Rick C.: That one about Rome and the Middle East sounds intriguing.
Doug: That is an interesting option. I hadn’t thought of reading a historical-fiction series. I did enjoy HBO’s Rome (except it is a tad bit dirty), so maybe a narrative approach will be helpful.
John: I’ve enjoyed what little I’ve read of Cicero. I’ll look for that work!
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