The Roman Empire (Beginner's Guides) by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Alex Johnston

Can a book rightly be considered “sprawling” if it is only two hundred pages long? Actually, not even quite two hundred pages if you strip out the back matter? Hmmm.

The book ostensibly covers “just” the period of time when Rome was an empire. As the author conveniently elaborates in the Epilogue (saving my overworked brain from doing the math), Rome (from its founding to the fall of the last emperor of the west in 476 CE) lasted 2,206 years (and one month and eight days!), but only 507 years of that is what is generally referred to as the “Roman Empire.” No big deal, right?

But don’t believe the author and his title. He’s fibbing. His book covers the whole damn 2,206 years (and one month and eight days). So here we have a book, part of a “Beginner’s Guides” series, in which, if you do the math, the author can more or less devote one page for every ten years of history.

So what can you expect? I didn’t know. I had seen references to Matyszak and his work, but I never actually read any of it until this book. I was a tabula rasa. But given the page count and series name, I figured maybe a list of emperors and brief bios – that sort of thing.

But, man! What a book! Somehow he manages to fit it all in. And by “it” I mean real commentary about and analysis of key episodes of Roman history. He doesn’t just tell us that Gauls sacked Rome sometime around 387 BCE. Like the TV commercial says, “Everybody knows that.” He goes on to describe how this crushing defeat was the point at which Rome’s rise to empire truly began. The Gauls didn’t just crush the Romans, they hit Rome’s neighbors pretty hard as well, but then they split. Rome recovered quickly and went ahead and re-crushed the neighbors – and they stuck around! That kind of thing.

I loved every chapter in the book, but, in my opinion, the fourth chapter, The time of crises, is where Matyszak really puts the meat on the bone, as he considers what is commonly referred to as the third century crisis.

He describes in detail the various types of crises that rocked the Empire during that time: political, military, and economic, but he also elaborates on the root cause – the flawed imperial succession process. He takes the time to explain Augustus’ little scam – a military dictatorship disguised as a republic and an emperor disguised as an ordinary guy. It was a scam that the civil-war weary populace was happy to accept at the time, but it created a peace that couldn’t last, and sowed the seeds for future chaos.

But in the end, it all comes down to money, doesn’t it? The book tells how the low-hanging fruit (and loot) of the wealthy, nearby Mediterranean provinces had largely been plucked by the Republicans. The list of profitable conquerees became slimmer and slimmer as the Empire progressed, and political instability encouraged corruption and a proliferation of money-sucking civil servants. Even the army got in on the action – demanding big bonuses every time they got a new boss. A fellow could make a nice living this way when turnover among bosses (aka emperors) was so brisk.

So things got tight, and the Federal Reserve bank was nowhere to be found, although they did figure out how to print money by reducing the precious metal content of their coinage.

And speaking of money, the author obviously knows economics as well as Roman history. He suggests that to view this time of crisis as an overall “decline” in the Empire might be simplistic. The writers of the time were all doom and gloom but they were largely Senators whose roles were diminished, so sure, they were bummed. Did enormously debased currency cause runaway inflation? Well, maybe, but possibly some communities just said “you can stick your Monopoly money up your culus – we’ll use bitcoins” or whatever the ancient equivalent was. And Spain seems to have slowed down. But is that because it was experiencing tough times, or because Africa was booming, and Spain was outsourcing to that prosperous continent? Britain was getting started on the whole Downton Abbey deal – agricultural innovations perhaps caused the transformation of the urban elite to landed gentry. So maybe some folks were doing okay. Good stuff – especially for a “beginner’s guide.”

MarcusMettius is the profile name for Alex Johnston, who is the author of the Marcus Mettius series of books. These books celebrate the largely fictional (and humorous) exploits of a bit player mentioned in Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. Born in Pennsylvania, Alex now makes his home in Northern California. Visit his Amazon author page at http://amazon.com/alexjohnston.

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