Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Recent reading (short reviews)

The Kindle has been getting an ancients workout recently and as some of the books may be of interest to wargamers I thought I'd post a few brief thoughts.

Julius Caesar: the Colossus of Rome. Richard A. Billows (2009)

This was an enjoyable read on Gaius Julius and the disintegration of the Republic. Billows is a Caesar apologist, and he places a large part of the blame for the Republic's demise on the unwillingness of the senatorial class to initiate necessary reforms, on their inability to compromise, and on their refusal to make accommodation for Caesar and his talents. Wherever you stand on that, it is a magnificently tragic story, and it is well told here.

There is a good analysis in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review which I would refer readers to, and will quote the conclusion:

"Light" reading for lovers of ancient history, Billows's biography of Caesar is appropriate to a general audience wanting detail but lacking a basic knowledge of the subject. It may even prove of use to those desperately seeking to put lecture-notes into order at the last minute. Stylistically a pleasure to read and crammed full of details, it has something to offer these categories of readers. However, it was never intended nor should be misconstrued as a serious contribution to scholarship on the subject. The work of Gelzer endures.
I mostly agree with the reviewer, but do think it's better than just 'light' reading. I found the book not only accessible but also informative and satisfyingly complete in the treatment of the theme. It covered a lot of ground and approached the subject from an interesting angle. I would recommend it.

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Tom Holland (2003)

This was a nice contrast to the Billows book. Holland is far less sympathetic to Caesar, and reading one book after the other reinforced the complexity of the issues and provided a first-class example of how the same evidence can be used to support quite different conclusions.

A review by Richard Miles can be found here in the Guardian, and, as before, I will quote the conclusion:

Holland, a non-specialist, has produced a broad-ranging, accessible synthesis of the period. The fact that Holland is not an academic is a positive strength: it has allowed him to look at his subject with a fresh and engaging eye.

Though it is not a work of amazing original research, Rubicon passes the crucial "so what?" test. Next time someone asks me why they should study Roman history, Rubicon will be one of the first books that I shall direct them to.

There's something about Holland that keeps me wary as a reader. I'm not quite sure what it is. A hint of smugness? An overly smooth surety in his interpretations? I can't put my finger on it exactly, but a sixth sense was in operation throughout  and I felt myself not fully trusting his use of evidence or his conclusions. Worth reading, but I wouldn't be cajoled into thinking it's definitive.

Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar. Tom Holland (2015)

Dynasty follows on from Rubicon to look at the Julio-Claudian emperors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. He offers considered, in-depth portraits, and while the well-known flaws are discussed, he examines the circumstances of each ruler's life, times and mode of accession in an effort to put these flaws into context.

The New York Times review concentrates on it being an engaging yarn:

Mr. Holland may not write with Mr. Hughes’s [Robert Hughes, art critic and author of Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History - Prufrock] breadth of cultural references or literary flair, but he does a compelling job of conjuring ancient Rome and its often monstrous rulers, and providing us with an understanding of its complicated class dynamics and animating mythology. He leaves us with insights into the reach and sweep of its empire and an appreciation of how precarious life was for slaves and freemen and soldiers. And for the ruling class, too, caught up in “the great game of dynastic advancement” that was played out with conspiracies, secret alliances and mortality dispensed in an infinitude of ways — by poison, exile, starvation, false accusations and arranged accidents.

The Guardian's take was rather less favourable and in places a little unfair, allowing current politics to intrude and devolving into a somewhat uncharitable [mis]reading of the author's approach.

The original Dynasty was a show for the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which fed into a tangle of emotions about 1980s capitalism: viewers were required to feel a mixture of envy, horror, fascination and admiration for beautiful Joan Collins, her wicked ways and her much-emulated fashions. Holland’s book, likewise, invites us to put ourselves into the sandals of Nero and Caligula, and assumes that, if we let ourselves off the hook with a dash of sarcasm, we will want to do so – as if signing up to be their apprentices. Depressingly enough, this is ancient Rome for the age of Donald Trump.

Holland does not in fact invite us to identify with the characters, but does attempt to consider why they were portrayed as they were and the factors that may have led to monstrous behaviour. Again, worth reading, but my reservations about Holland apply here, too.

Augustus: the Life of Rome's First Emperor. Anthony Everitt (2006)

This book I read first, so although I am a little hazier in my recall of it than I am with the others, I found it to be a sound, thoughtfully put together account of the life and career of Caesar Augustus. Augustus is of course a complex, contradictory, almost unknowable character, but undeniably great. Everitt leads us to see this greatness without skipping over the contradictions, and does a fine job of telling the story(ies) of Augustus's rise to power and how he went about consolidating it.

It's a strong book, but best read with an understanding of what had gone before (the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, especially) still fresh in the mind, so that the genius of Augustus's approach - and considerations of its necessity or otherwise - can be fully appreciated.

There is a trashy review in the Independent:

After finally defeating Mark Antony at Actium, Augustus ruled the Roman world for the next 40-odd years. Everitt tells his story well by telling it carefully, with due regard for sources and resisting the unlicensed speculation that has characterised screen representations from I, Claudius onwards. The same caution, however, inhibits a sense of perspective. Had Everitt looked ahead, he would have seen how quickly Rome unravelled post-Augustus. It was the Flavian emperors, from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius, who did more for a still embryonic Europe, never mind the West.

And a better one in the Guardian:

In everything from his moral reforms to his manipulative patronage, the father of the empire proved himself a master of psychology. It is the mark of this exemplary biography that Everitt does likewise, and does so with increasing confidence as political control begins to slip from the ageing Augustus and his vulnerabilities are revealed.

In my view Everitt's book was probably the pick of the bunch, but in saying that, as these were read on the Kindle, I didn't have the luxury of flicking back to review earlier events, to check consistency of approach, or any of the other little things that make reading a paper non-fiction book a more in-depth reading experience.

Anyway, all of these books had their good points, I would be happy to have them on my shelves in paper form, and I'll likely revisit them all at some stage.


  1. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend this is a very good read.

    “Caesar against the Celts” by Ramon L. Jimenez

    1. Thanks Kevin, haven't read it but now will!


  2. Interesting reviews Aaron! I quite liked Rubicon but found Persian Fire disappointing and I'm not sure how his translation of Herodotus was received. A mate and I saw at talk he gave on In the Shadow of the Sword which was quite good. Tricky balancing act writing popular and accessible histories!

    1. Thanks Mike! Haven’t read Persian Fire. Yes, getting the balance right can be tricky. Good to see we still have authors trying though!

  3. Interesting and useful set of micro reviews!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...