Book Review by M. Porcius Cato
The history of the Roman republic - a story about how one city in Italy overthrew a monarchy, conquered her neighbors, united Italy, defeated all her rivals in the Mediterranean, and descended into civil war and ultimately monarchy again - presents a formidable challenge to any beginner. The republic itself was a political entity so complex it bewildered foreigners and Romans alike. Its magistrates--a dazzling succession of consuls, suffect consuls, dictators, praetors, aediles, tribunes and special commissioners stretching over nearly 500 years--were too numerous for even the Romans (who were otherwise quite happy to list these sorts of things) to bother recording them all.
Finally, the evidence of who these men were and what, when, where, and why they did what they did lies scattered across coins, temple inscriptions, grave markers, bronze tablets, pottery sherds, and written histories that as often seek to justify as to inform. To reconstruct this fragmentary and sometimes unreliable evidence into an integrated narrative is far too daunting for even the most intelligent and motivated student, which is why anyone interested in beginning to take up the task should begin with The Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak.
Dr. Philip 'Maty' Matyszak, an Oxford-educated historian and author of Enemies of Rome from Hannibal to Atilla the Hun, Sons of Caesar: Rome's Julio-Claudian Emperors, and the eagerly-awaited Political Sociology of the Roman Republic from Sulla to Augustus, has written a highly-readable, entertaining, and informative chronicle of the leading magistrates of the Roman republic. In 231 pages, Matyszak narrates the lives of 57 Roman leaders, beautifully embellished with 293 illustrations (98 in color), including maps, military diagrams, photographs of modern sites, coins, gems, mosaics, portrait sculptures, ancient weapons, ships, household artifacts, inscriptions, and modern paintings depicting Republican themes (such as the deputation to Cincinnatus and the suicide of Cato).
After a brief introduction covering "Republican Virtues" and "The Rise of Rome", the Chronicle is organized into four parts: the regal period, the founding of the republic, the wars of expansion, and the era of Caesar. The basic units of each section are devoted to a single Roman leader, including the famous (Scipio, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Caesar, Brutus), the should-be-famous (Poplicola, Camillus, Marcellus, Livius Drusus, Sertorius), the historically important (Appius Claudius, Flamininus, the Gracchi), the notorious (Flaminius, Galba, Saturninus, Clodius), the legendary (Romulus and Remus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Servius Tullius), and of course those figures of Roman virtus (Horatius Cocles, Cincinnatus, Regulus, and someone the author calls "Cato the Stoic") who defined the Republic for many generations of students. Helpfully, each of the 57 figures are placed on a proper timeline, and they are listed with basic genealogical facts, offices held, principal achievements, and manner of death. The sum of all this is like a highly approachable and chronologically arranged version of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (or, if you prefer, National Geographic meets Broughton's Magistrates of the Roman Republic).
Strangely, although the Chronicle comes to an end, it does not actually have an ending--no epilogue putting these lives into an overarching context. This is regrettable. The author's introduction contains a number of interesting claims that attempt to name the essence of the republican character ("They were hard men -- prudish, superstitious, brutal, and utterly uncompromising. And they were also unflinchingly, sometimes suicidally, brave. ... They were intolerant of weakness, exploiting it in others and despising it in themselves. They won their wars simply because, to this arrogant nation, the concept of defeat was literally unthinkable") and to trace the causes of the decline of the republic ("conquered peoples and freed slaves were welcomed into the ranks of citizens. When this policy of inclusiveness changed, the consequences led directly to the fall of the Republic"). Yet by the end, we have so many examples of the sexually shameless, the irreligious, and even the compromising (Caesar, Clodius, and Cicero readily come to mind), what are we to make of the generalizations in the introduction? Here an epilogue would have been quite helpful.
To be sure, the Chronicle does provide much of the context needed to understand the lives of our republican leaders, but it does this using a strategy that yields mixed outcomes. The basic technique is one that has always enjoyed wide use in popular magazines and has now become ubiquitous in college textbooks--viz., the "special feature" cut-away, those little boxes of text on seemingly random topics that interrupt the narrative and divide one's attention. To be sure, it's very nice to have listed the principal historical sources (Livy and so forth), the offices of the Roman constitution, and the Twelve Tables. Also, discussing the Twelve Tables in the context of Appius Claudius the Decemvir, Roman roads in the context of Appius Claudius the Blind, and Stoicism in the context of "Cato the Stoic" certainly seems reasonable enough. However, the placement of many special features make less sense. For example, "Trade and the Roman Aristocracy" interrupts the discussion of Livius Drusus to no good effect, whereas it could have been quite useful when introducing the lex Flaminia or discussing Cato the Elder. Why, in the context of Tiberius Gracchus, we should learn how to don a toga still mystifies me, though in the context of his brother Gaius, the special feature on the publicani was quite apt. Again, the section on Pompey is strangely interrupted by a cut-away on gladiators (and not even because he mentions that Pompey had a real taste for the games), whereas the section on Crassus (who fought a whole army of gladiators) has only a small picture of an archaic one. For this cut-away strategy, it's hard to know whether to blame the author or not: sometimes editors can be such unconscionable populares.
Although the Chronicle is a very good introduction to the men, events, and society of the Roman republic, its biographical approach needlessly omits much regarding the moral and philosophical ideas that motivated these men. With the exception of the influence of Stoicism on Cato the Younger, one seldom gets the impression that the Romans thought very much or very deeply about where they were going, why they were going there, and what fundamentally they were fighting about. Then (as now) ideas mattered: at the root of many social conflicts was a culture clash (e.g., between Hellenism and the agrarian mos maiorum), and for the Romans whose civitas justified (at least in their own eyes) the annihilation of iron age tribes, it would have been nice to have heard a bit from the men who distinguished the Romans from such expansionist tribes as the Huns.
The polymath Varro, the philosopher Lucretius, the poet Catullus, and comedian Plautus must have expressed what some of the leading Romans thought of themselves, their world, and their colleagues, and their voices must be considered at least as important as the method for donning a toga. With only these two criticisms, however, I couldn't recommend either a better introduction to the Republic or a more enjoyable reference work for even the well-read Romanophile.