When I was a kid, Indiana Jones was my hero. He was smart. He fought Nazis. He had a whip!! I wanted to be just like him. While I never became an archaeologist (or learned how to use a whip), my love for Indiana Jones did provide me with a lifelong fascination with history. I love reading history books. I even minored in history in college. But somehow, I hadn’t learned much about the Roman Empire, even though it’s one of the most important institutions in the history of civilization. When I saw Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss sitting on the new releases shelf, I thought it would be a good opportunity to fix that gap in my knowledge.
I ended up being disappointed. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations. After all, it was not really fair to expect 300-ish pages to provide me with all of the information I would want about a time period spanning 400-ish years.
The Roman Empire was ruled by a succession of emperors. The chapters of Ten Caesars proceed chronologically, with each chapter generally focusing on the reign of a different, Really Important Emperor (Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vaspasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine). Each emperor’s chapter provides an overview of his origins, style, accomplishments (or lack thereof), tendencies, military record, and so on and so forth. Those Really Important Emperors were not the only emperors of Rome, though. There were a lot more, and quite a few of them are discussed in the book even though they did not receive their own chapter. For example, the reigns of Caligula and Claudius are both examined in Nero’s chapter. All told, the book really provides an overview of maybe around 25 emperors.
And an overview is pretty much all the book provides. You will not get a deep understanding of any of the emperors as people. The author usually just baldly states his judgments and conclusions about the character, personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the emperors, and he does not spend much time justifying them. Nor does the book provide a lot of details about how the empire actually operated, so I didn’t get a great understanding of the historical circumstances in which the emperors lived. For example, I would have appreciated descriptions of the institutional mechanisms, economy, and power dynamics of the empire, including whether those things remained static or changed over the course of the empire. I would have liked to have been provided with more insight into the general roman culture and how the emperor was reacting to it or guiding it or both. Without that information, I couldn’t come to my own conclusions about whether a ruler’s actions were brutal, cruel, wise, reasonable, justified, or whatever. Instead, I had to rely solely on the author’s judgments.
I’d be more willing to accept the lack of detail if the conclusions presented by the author was the consensus understanding of scholars and historians. However, there is apparently no such consensus. It seems like there is a lot of scholarly debate about some of this stuff. I guess this because the author spends a considerable amount of time in the book responding to or disagreeing with the analyses performed by earlier scholars or ancient commentators. The author does not really provide a survey or history of the previous scholarship; he just references other works that the Target Audience of this book wouldn’t have read and argues against their conclusions. Maybe those old conclusions are no longer respected by current scholars, but this book doesn’t provide me with that information. Therefore, the author’s arguments interrupt the “narrative flow” of the book and don’t really add anything to it. Ten Caesars would have been better served if it had kept a tighter focus as a survey of major Roman emperors OR if it had been a mini-survey of the historical scholarship of those emperors. Instead it’s just kind of messy.
The messiness is only increased by ham-fisted descriptions of the roles of various women in the imperial court. I got the impression that the author tried to be more inclusive of female contributions at the insistence of an editor. Or maybe he tried to combine his work from a different, aborted book into this one. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t work. To be clear, I am very interested in the roles of women at the Roman imperial court, but the broad, general statements inserted into this book, with less detail or insight than what is provided on various wiki pages, is not the way to present that topic. It just made an already unfocused book even more noisy, as if three-or-four half-written books had been Frankenstein-monstered into one.
Ten Caesars is not incredibly well-written. I would sometimes get so confused by Ten Caears‘ prose that I had to look up information on Wikipedia to try to figure out what the author was talking about. The book also has some very clumsy (to put it charitably) passages about sexual preferences and race.
For those that find comparisons helpful, Ten Caesars has a style similar to that of the book Fire and Blood by George RR Martin, which is a fake history of a dynasty in a fantasy kingdom in the Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones universe, written from the point-of-view of a fictional scholar. It’s obvious that Fire and Blood apes some real-world histories of royal families. The format and content of Ten Caesars that I complain about so much may just be following in the tradition of those kinds of books. But just because it’s traditional does not necessarily make it any good.
Enough grousing. I DID finish the book after all, so the book is readable. At its core, the subject matter is really interesting. The reigns of the emperors feature ultraviolence, incest, matricide, fratricide, grandson-icide, wars, assassinations, reprisals, plots, intrigue, coups, just really massive amounts of violence. The historical Rome is even more brutal than the gritty fantasy Game of Thrones universe. It is entertaining and interesting, and I want to know more about that Roman world.
Unfortunately, that promising subject matter is ill-served by the book’s poor editing. Ten Caesars tries to do too many things, and it doesn’t do a great job at any of them. It felt as though I was not reading a survey of the Roman emperors so much as a summary of the author’s opinions of each of those emperors. After reading the book, I don’t believe I understand Rome or the emperors who lead it any better, and I could have learned just as much if not more in the same time span by reading wiki pages.
My rating: 3 stars