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The Enemies of Rome by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by docoflove1974*

As this book has been previously reviewed by an esteemed colleague who is quite knowledgeable of the military history of Rome, I will not approach the book from the same vantage point. Instead, I will be reviewing the book as someone who is college educated with a basic knowledge of Roman history, one who recognizes the majority of the names and places mentioned in this book, but certainly is no expert is Roman history. In this light, Matyszak’s Enemies of Rome is a solid foundation for anyone who is beginning an interest in Roman conquest.

The premise of this book is this: Rome versus various enemies and their political/ethnic groups throughout their history: Hannibal of Carthage, Philip V of Macedonia, Viriathus of Lusitania, Jurgurtha of Numidia, Mithradates of Pontus, Spartacus and the slave revolt, Vercingetorix of Gaul, Orodes II of Parthia, Cleopatra of Egypt, Arminius of Germania, Boudicca of Britannia, Josephus of Judea, Decebalus of Dacia, Shapur I of Persia, Zenobia of Palmyra, Alaric of the Goths, and Attila the Hun. Each of these represents a significant adversary to Rome and her thirst of conquest; even if the battles are over small areas of land or a small group of people, they each are symbolic of a particular struggle at a particular moment in long and heralded history of the Roman people. To each is devoted a chapter, broken up into the various epochs of ancient Roman history—from the times of the Republic, to the early Empire, and on through the middle and late periods of the Empire. In each case, the ‘enemy of Rome’ is not viewed in a pejorative light; rather each is given an opportunity to tell their own story. Whenever possible, the author uses contemporary sources, often from the ‘enemy combatant’ or the court historian of the time; this lends an almost sympathetic ear to these foreign powers. One can understand not only why Rome went to battle with these peoples in the first place, but also why these peoples felt the need to go to battle with Rome.

A true strength of this book is truly how these adversaries are presented. In some cases, these figures have been somewhat fictionalized, with several movies and books available to ‘narrate’ their stories—so much so that often many do not know what is fact or fiction about them. This is certainly true of two very famous combatants—Spartacus the Slave and Cleopatra of Egypt—as well as for many others. Matyszak makes it quite clear that on many of these figures there is much myth to go along with the facts, and makes clear what is the truth—or, the truth as we know it now—about each adversary. In fact, while reading the chapter on Boudicca, I happened to catch a historical documentary on the Iceni warrior queen, and found that many of the myths or ‘unattested facts’ that are painstakingly mentioned by Matyszak as such were indeed being purported as truths and known facts about her. Certainly it would do many people good to read a book such as this one in order to truly understand not only these individuals and the people who they were ruling, but the times and circumstances of the world at that given period. This is something that Matyszak does quite well.

The various ‘lesser known’ battles, the ones which most Westerners do not recognize immediately, are equally well-treated, both in terms of displaying myth as well as the treatment of the known history. For every battle and adversary, there is plentiful background, so that one can see the events unfold in a logical pattern—Romans did not generally go to war for the sake of war, but because there was a series of events which led directly to the two powers engaging in combat. While it is not necessarily the same mentality that we have today, Matyszak presents well the succession of events such that one begins to see a glimpse into life at that time. This helps those beginning students of history to understand why certain actions were taken, and perhaps leads these budding historians to inquire further about a particular area of ancient history.

In general, this book is written for someone with a high school or 2-year collegiate background, who has a budding interest in Roman history and conquest. Indeed, I have already lent this book out to a lower-division student who is starting to become curious about Roman history; this is the perfect audience. What is more, the extensive reference section, of both first-hand and contemporary accounts as well as more modern research, is well above standard, such that even those with advanced knowledge of Roman history will find this a handy resource. This is true not only for the textual artifacts, but as well for the numerous examples of period art, coins, and other artifacts which are displayed throughout the book. Not only is there a general map of the Roman Empire at its height at the beginning of the book, with markers of each adversary’s territory, there is at least one map in every chapter with detailed markers of important cities, battles, camps, and routes. The only drawback is that too often Matyszak uses modern geographical terms for ancient places—this is especially true in the Middle East territory. However, if one is marketing a history book for the modern reader and a general audience, perhaps this concession is necessary so that people can truly identify the ancient city or territory with the modern one.

Overall, this book is recommendable for anyone who has little knowledge of Roman history and wishes to learn more, as well as a solid quick reference for the major battles and ‘enemies’ of Rome. The writing is clear, precise, and unwavering, and it is accessible to many.

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*Sarah Harmon, PhD
Adjunct Professor of Spanish, Cañada College
Lecturer of Spanish, St. Mary’s College of California

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