A History of Ancient Rome in 100 Lives

Image of A History of Ancient Rome in 100 Lives
Release Date: 
June 20, 2023
Thames & Hudson
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"a vivid image of Rome as it changes over the centuries . . . a big gift in one small book."

The history of ancient Rome is usually told through war and politics. Matyszak and Berry had the wonderful idea to instead tell the history though its people, selecting 100 lives that offer glimpses into different aspects of the Roman world. Archeological records, women, tradespeople, slaves are all included along with the men who famously appear in the historical record. This broad range of lives makes the book a true treasure, offering details about experiences that have long been silent.

Each section is prefaced by a brief though deft explanation of the main issues facing Rome in that particular period, from Rome's early beginnings to the fall of the empire. These encapsulations help situate the lives that follow and provide a context for better understanding individual contributions. For example, the second chapter showcases what made early Rome so successful:

"A factor that made Rome uniquely suited to empire was the extraordinary openness of its society. Those conquered by Rome became citizens, not subjects. Such were the benefits of citizenship that the grandchildren of some of Rome's bitterest enemies ended up fully subscribing to the Roman project."

An example of an unfamiliar story is that of Fabius Pictor, Rome's first historian. His own writing has vanished, so what can be known about him? Surprisingly quite a bit: "his history was used extensively by Greek historians, including Polybius (who took issue with Fabius' pro-Roman bias) and Dio of Halicarnassus. Later scholars have combed through surviving ancient texts to find traces of Rome's first historian."

Plenty of familiar figures are included as well, but that doesn't make their portraits here any less interesting. Here is how Cicero is introduced:

"Cicero is something of a conundrum—his relentless self-promotion, his bombastic egoism and his ability to fall to self-pitying pieces in a crisis are as unappealing today as they were to Cicero's contemporaries two millennia ago. Yet Cicero seldom boasts of his oratory, although he was the greatest of Latin orators, and when he was caught in a crisis Cicero proved that courage is indeed 'grace under pressure.'"

There are too many fascinating lives to cite them all, but particularly interesting are the ones who are conveyed with little or no literary record. Julius Zoilos, Octavians' loyal freedman, is known through "inscriptions in his home town, Aphrodisias in southwest Turkey." Eumachia, a priestess in Pompeii, is also revealed through archeological inscriptions. Frontinus, builder of Rome's aqueducts, has his own writings, along with architectural inscriptions testifying to his accomplishments.

All of the lives together create a vivid image of Rome as it changes over the centuries. New people are introduced while those who are better known are presented with fresh, lively details so that each page offers the reader something new to learn. That's a big gift in one small book.