Aspects of Roman History: 82 BC - AD 14 by M. Davies and H. Swain

Book Review by Ursus

Aspects of Roman History: 82 BC - AD 14 is an excellent primer to the study of the late Roman Republic. It offers a traditional political and military narrative of key Roman statesmen from the rise of Marius to the ascension of Tiberius. A brief summary of Roman society and culture rounds out the historical narrative. The authors view Roman history from the plethora of primary authors who covered this fascinating period, and quotes are used to good effect.

Hillary Swain and Mark Everson Davies are both teachers of Ancient History at St. Albans School in the UK. It seems the book was written specifically for university bound high school students, or university students just beginning their studies in ancient history. The purpose of the book was therefore to restrict the scope and study of history to the essential players of the Roman Republic and how they acquired and used (or abused) power; more postmodern studies focusing on gender, social class and the like the authors feel are not suitable for an introductory text. Another stated goal was to teach aspiring students how to critically examine sources by sifting through them for bias, propaganda and erroneous information.

The first chapter is an introduction from the authors, who detail their goals (as outlined above), introduce the students to the principle sources for this period, and offer a sketch of Roman history and government through the Middle Republic. Chapters 2- 12 document the warlordism of the Late Republic. Particular attention is paid to the interplay of politics between the warlords and the Senate, or between the warlords themselves (as in the case of the First and Second Triumvirates). Cicero also gets some prominent attention as he is one of the chief witnesses of this era, and his letters provide rare insight into the private thoughts and failings of an individual persona. Chapters 13 - 15 document the victory of Augustus and the various constitutional settlements that transformed Rome from a (dysfunctional) republic into a veiled monarchy. Chapters 16 - 20 offer sketches on aspects of Roman society and the actual administration of the city and empire.

While certain topics (such as Caesar's war in Gaul) are reduced to a bare minimum, the political history of the Republic itself is sumptuously documented. The organs of Roman government are showcased, as are the tensions between various social orders and the enactment of key laws. Perhaps most important to hook the interests of beginning students, the lives and personalities of "great men" are explored.

Take for instance Cicero, whose writings have inspired (or bored) students of Latin for centuries. There is little doubt that Cicero was an honorable man who sincerely believed in the ideals of the Republic. But the authors also demonstrate, in Cicero's own words as well as others' reaction to them, the insecurity stemming from his novus homo status and his desire to be accepted by the ancient families of Rome. Cicero was vainglorious and self-promoting even by Roman standards. While he may have been a voice of moderation to the excesses of the Late Republic, he was also something of an insufferable windbag.

Then there is Caesar, Pompei and Cato, the three men who probably had the most to do with ending the Republic. To paraphrase the authors, Pompei could accept no equal, while Caesar could accept no superior. These two giants were not especially inclined to back down when it came to direct confrontation, as their egos were on the line. But even were the two warlords inclined to conciliate, the Optimates in the Senate led by such people as the obdurate Cato fostered a political climate that afforded little room for compromise. The authors surmise the Optimates pushed for a civil war as they desperately hoped that the war lords would exterminate each other, allowing the Senate to regain control.

Then of course there are Antony and Octavian. Antony was a fair soldier and administrator, but Octavian's skills as a politician and propagandist (coupled with Agrippa's skill as an admiral) ultimately won the contest of supremacy. Octavian's shrewd political acumen, coupled with widespread weariness of civil war, ensured the survival of his regime. But the dichotomy between his morality laws and his own family's behavior were vast, begetting a certain cynicism in "family values" legislation that resonates to this day.

Swain and Davies furnish a very serviceable overview of these turbulent times. Their prose is clear and dignified, totally bereft of any academic jargon. To aid in the clarity of data, the work comes with a glossary, timeline, bibliography and index. There are only six illustrations. The latter is a pet peeve of mine; I feel visual aids like photographs and such add to the feel and appeal of history, especially to introductory texts. But it is a minor complaint, I suppose. The authors also reference other historians to provide a spectrum of views on certain matters; among other names people might recognize are Adrian Goldsworthy.

In the sum of things, I feel Aspects of Roman History accomplishes the four main goals it sets for itself: to provide a detailed overview of the political history of the Late Republic; to introduce students to the biographies of great figures from Roman history; to sketch the basics of society, culture and administration; and to help students critically analyze history by examining the main sources thereof. The work is designed to replace H.H. Scullard's works as the new introduction to Roman history (at least within the UK). A companion piece on the early Roman Empire has also been published and, inspired by the strength of this work, I fully intend to find myself a copy.

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