Roman History Reading

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

This really has nothing to do with economic growth, so feel free to dismiss it. My most recent “hobby reading” has been on the fall of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the empire under Augustus. I’ve got a nice little reading list if you are interested in the topic or time period, or looking for gifts for that special nerd in your life.

  1. Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic is a great introduction to the era. He writes in an engaging style, but provides enough information and analysis to make you think. It’s not just a “then this battle happened” kind of history book.
  2. Richard Allston’s Romes Revolution: Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire argues that you have to understand the nature of Roman social networks to understand what happened to allow the Republic to die. The Republic survived because the networks of major families were in something like a balance of power. Caesar, and then Augustus, broke that balance of power by creating a network outside of the major families, the legions. Whether this was inevitable (the balance could not hold), necessary (to limit civil war), or desirable (was the old balance so great?) is not something Allston takes a firm stand on. But he describes nicely how the Senate got coopted into the new Augustan network.
  3. Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is a classic in this area. Written in 1939, it is one of those books that presumes the reader is already educated in classical history. So I’d suggest trying some of the others first before you tackle this one, unless of course you graduated from Oxford in 1917. For all that, it is an excellent book, albeit quite grim. Syme see’s Caesar and Augustus as somewhat inevitable given the inherent problems that the Roman Republic had with administrating an empire. Like Allston, it was about the persona network of power that Augustus built, not any grand political theories, that created the empire.
  4. H.H. Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 BC to AD 68 is another classic in this arena. A little more accessible than Syme’s work, and not a bad intro. The nice aspect is that it covers the early part of this period with more depth than most. There are two reasons the Gracchi brothers are often used as the start of this story. First, because they were the first to take full advantage of the position of tribune to veto Senate legislation, asserting the power of the plebs. Second, because the Senate/oligarchy got so spooked by this that they had the Gracchi killed, which opened the door to violence as a legitimate political action.
  5. Gareth Sampson’s The Collapse of Rome: Marius, Sulla, and the First Civil War is not a great book. It’s very much “and then this battle happened” kind of history. But the actors and time period are where I think much of the interest is at. The Republic starts to wobble as Marius and then Sulla use “break the ice” and use violence to assert their political power, all in the name of the people. Caesar learned his lessons from these men.
  6. Tom Holland’s Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar is really about a different time. He provides some background, but the first part of this book is about how Augustus built his dictatorship into a hereditary dynasty. The second part is about how Augustus’ various relatives tried desperately to screw this up. I didn’t find this book nearly as engaging as Rubicon. Perhaps because the story of the early emperors is something I was more familiar with, and the minutiae of palace intrigue gets a little old after a while.
  7. Plutarch’s Lives. One of the classic “original” sources, despite the fact that Plutarch was writing himself from other sources. Regardless, much of the story of this era is based on guys like Plutarch, so it is worth reading. I think it’s one of those things to read after you’ve exposed yourself to the general story, because Plutarch is a little sloppy about name usage, places, and dates.
  8. Appian’s The Civil Wars. Again, an “original” source that forms a lot of the basis of later history. As you can glean from the title, the period leading up to the establishment of the empire is a series of civil conflicts, not a single one. You have, generally speaking, a running series of conflicts between populares (those claiming to represent the people) and optimates (those claiming to represent the traditional Republic) over who will actually be in charge. The Gracchi’s versus the Senate is one brief skirmish. Marius versus Sulla turns into full scale war. Caesar versus Pompey is a really just an extension of that war. Augustus versus Antony loses a little of this thread as by then it is simply a slugfest over who gets to be the dictator. But another book to read after you’ve got the essential history in your head.

I won’t claim that everything I read here is fraught with Deep Contemporary Relevance. But, there are some interesting elements of the Roman world around the time of the end of the Republic that have parallels worth thinking about.

  • Technological disruption. An influx of slaves from the east eliminates jobs for Roman citizens, creating a class of people with a lot of uncertainty and little to lose.
  • Increasing wealth disparities. The landowners who owned the slaves consolidated land, becoming even richer, and displaced even more common Romans.
  • Citizenship questions. Italian allies of the Romans had helped defeat Carthage and win the east, but were not citizens. This bothered them, but the idea of making them citizens bothered the existing Romans, who had little more than their political rights as assets.
  • External threats. In the middle of this period, a new wave of Gauls descends on Italy, scaring the *$%&(# out of Rome and people quickly abandoned traditional limits on the power of the consul in order to ensure safety. Once granted, the legions would never really relinquish this power even as the effective dictator changed (Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Antony, Augustus).

It’s a fascinating period of time. Enjoy!

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15 thoughts on “Roman History Reading

  1. Pingback: Thursday assorted links

  2. Dietz: This post is fun for me to see because, as someone up in years, I had the privilege of hearing Ronald Syme give a lecture at Columbia, back in the mid-’70s. His topic was “St Paul’s missionary strategy”, as I recall, and – just as you relate vis-a-vis Augustus – it was all about how Paul put a network together. Nice memory.

  3. For a little different perspective I would recommend “Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome.” It takes a systems analysis approach that focuses on how the Middle Republic managed external conflicts, with emphasis on the citizenship issue. The downside is that it doesn’t emphasize the internal conflicts.

  4. Mary Beard, the world authority on classical literature from the UK, should be on your list. I would not read ancient history using primary source materials, even good translations; leave it to a competent specialist like Beard. I read and speak modern Greek but would not think of reading Herodotus on my own; let somebody trained for decades do that (often British), and then distill the wisdom of their mind in a book, like Beard does. It’s the difference between traveling to a foreign country with a competent tour guide versus doing it on your own. Sure it’s more fun to do it on your own (which is what I do) but objectively speaking you’ll learn more with a good tour guide (hard to find, not those cheap guides that just make up stories to impress gullible seniors on the silver wheels tour bus either).

  5. As it is labelled hobby reading the link cannot be regarded as comment on the recent thoughts that the USA becoming like Rome and hastening to collapse.

  6. Dandy post, and I hope you’ll give a follow-up with your opinions on Colleen McCarthy’s FIRST MAN IN ROME series, Luttvik’s GRANF STRATEGY OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and a dozen or so more recent works.

    I’m asking for a lot, I know, but those folks back them labored to be remembered — there OUGHT to be more discussion of the Romans on the internet!

    • Agreed! Just working through parts of Mommsen right now. Loving it. So for now the “hobby reading” will remain Roman, which includes pulling in McCarthy and others.

  7. Pingback: 5 puncte - saptamana #52 - Mindfilter - recomandari articole, carti bune, dezvoltare personala

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