Reviewed by: Miles Russell
Author: Peter Jones
Publisher: Atlantic Books
There have, over the years, been many books that set out to provide a ‘definitive’ guide to the world of the Romans. Few, however, have been written in such an informative and entertaining way as Peter Jones’s new book, which really does achieve everything that its subtitle indicates.
Crammed with information, his work is something that can perhaps be more profitably dipped into than read from cover to cover, with each page providing thought-provoking discussions on all aspects of Roman life. A timeline keeps the reader on track, providing a chronological basis for the introduction of key subjects. The book’s strength, however, is Jones’s enthusiastic writing, witty turn of phrase and lively imagination. He is an expert guide, never worthy, always informative and entertaining, with an eye for detail and the gift of being able to effortlessly explain complex issues.
Every paragraph contains something that is either fascinating (the Latin for ‘electioneering’, we are told, is ambitio, while the word ambitus means ‘bribery’); staggering (Rome built 272 trunk roads, covering a total of 53,000 miles); surprising (the city of Rome produced more than 670 tonnes of raw sewage a day); shocking (by the first century AD, 25 per cent of the population of Italy were slaves), or wonderfully obscure (during triumphal processions, Roman generals carried a model phallus in their hand to ward off envy).
Along the way, Jones introduces a host of characters, some familiar – including Augustus, and Romulus the fratricide – and some less so, such as Mucius Scaevola, ‘the left-handed hero’ and Tarpeia the ‘traitor’. We learn that Roman society had concerns that were not that dissimilar to those of our own, from celebrity culture, cowboy builders and tax-dodgers to election rigging, fundamentalist religion and immigration. Others, meanwhile, appear very alien indeed: animal sacrifice, for instance, or debates on the best way to price a gladiator. Potent myths are slain, such as the belief that Roman soldiers were paid in salt (thanks to Pliny the Elder’s confusion over the origins of the term ‘salary’) or the idea that salt was itself sown into the shattered remains of Rome’s defeated enemy Carthage to make the earth infertile (the city’s location made it far too valuable).
A minor quibble is that the book deals almost exclusively with the ‘Golden Age’ of Rome, defined by Roman historians as 27 BC to AD 180. This means that there are relatively few opportunities to discuss the so-called ‘age of rust and iron’. Indeed, there are fewer than 60 pages covering the period from AD 193 to 476, with nothing really on the empire of the Romans in the east. Such information, detailing Rome’s latter existence, could be collected for a speculative follow up – Rome: The Medieval Years, perhaps?
Jones’s book brings the people of Rome to life more convincingly than anything I have seen before. I just wish it had been around when I first started taking an interest in Roman history.
Miles Russell is co-author of UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (The History Press, 2010)