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The Oxford History of the Roman World - John Boardman

Book Review by Ursus

The Oxford History of the Roman World is, above all, an enjoyable read. It is however one that is flawed in approach. When I think of UK scholarship, and Oxford in particular, I am wont to imagine a certain thoroughness in detail and scope that may even border on pedantry. Such is not the case with this work. There are gaps in its focus which detract from what could have easily been a brilliant and even-handed survey. Nonetheless, on the areas it chooses to concentrate, the book does provide an engaging read. This makes the Oxford History an introduction of mixed quality for the neophyte.

Oxford History contains an introduction and seventeen chapters written by different experts on their respective fields. As you might imagine, most of the experts are in-house Oxford doctors, however there are three essays penned by respective scholars from Cambridge, Trinity College in Dublin, and the University of Manchester. Originally published in 1986 and reissued in 2001, it may not have the most cutting edge research contained within its pages.

However, the quality of contributions is on the whole superb. The clarity of the prose is engaging; I have suffered through long-winded Oxford essays, but the writings of this tome are enormously facile in approach. Each essay also has a detailed bibliography for further study, and there are maps and chronologies to chart the expansive time and space of the Roman world. There are six pages of black and white photographs; I felt more could have been added, but Oxford has produced a separate illustrated volume of Roman history to remedy that problem.

The main deficiency that arises with this work is one of expectations. Normally these civilizational surveys focus on political and military narratives, affording cultural concerns a less pronounced presence. Oxford History reverses this scenario. The traditional political and military events are given short shrift, allowing cultural experts room to explore their topics in depth. This may actually have been a sound strategy for those already familiar with Roman history who want to better explore specifically cultural matters; however, as far as I understand books such as this are marketed to undergraduates or casual lay readers who presumably do not have a solid grounding in basic history. This would leave the reader with significant gaps in the general historical narrative.

Of the seventeen chapters, there are only four that really provide a coherent outline of a historical era. These focus, respectively, on the founding of Rome to the conquest of Italy, the Punic Wars and the Mediterranean expansion, Cicero and the Late Republic, the early empire through the Severan period. Another chapter discusses Roman historians; a history of Roman history, as it were. The final chapter provides a brief outline of the end of Antiquity and the beginning of Medieval and Byzantine cultures.

There is much that is missing; the Crisis of the Third Century, the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, the later wars with Germanic tribes and Sassanid Persia should all have had their own chapters. Their exclusion provides a discernable gap. Even within the time frames studied, more could have been done to flesh out some detail. Given that the Late Republic is so well documented and so ripe with earth-shattering events, it should have been split into multiple chapters to cover key points in depth. I think providing separate chapters for the Julio-Claudians, Flavians and Antonines would also have better served the reader.

Thus the traditional historical narrative of political and military events leaves something to be desired. The only compensation is that the cultural side of things is superbly illuminated. There are six chapters on various Roman poets and literati from the middle Republic to the Silver Age, with one focusing exclusively on Virgil. There is a truly exceptional piece on the murky world of Roman philosophy; Plotinus the Neoplatonist served as the hinge between Rome's pagan past and its Christian future. There is a quality chapter each dedicated to Roman art and architecture, the Roman home and daily life, and a general overview of demographics and interactions among the empire's vast amount of subject peoples. A chapter entitled "The Arts of Government" explores the mechanics of Roman administration and the inclusive policy demonstrated toward provincial elites in the imperial era.

All in all I think this work's seventeen chapters could have been expanded to twenty-five, with the additional pieces focusing solely on well defined political epochs. The Oxford History seems incomplete, a criticism I rarely make of Oxford. I would submit that those Romanophiles chiefly interested in literature and culture as opposed to history per se would make the most of this work, and then perhaps it is better to buy a cheap used copy than the publisher's full price.

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Book Review of The Oxford History of the Roman World - Related Topic: Roman History


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