Sunday, August 28, 2011


A review of Anthony Everitt's Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome (2009)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Antony Everitt's biography of the Emperor Hadrian is very different from his earlier biographies on the Emperor Augustus and the orator Cicero. The reason is the difference of subjects' time periods. In the two earlier books, one system, the Republic, is coming to an end, while a new system, the Principate of the Roman Empire, is established. Cicero tries to save the Republic and dies in the attempt, while Augustus creates the Principate and rules until his seventies. When Hadrian was born the Principate had been established for over a hundred years. Rome was now in the reign of Emperor Vespasian, who took over at the brief interruption of the Pax Romana, the Year of the Four Emperors. Hadrian would be born a citizen of Rome, living under the rule of emperors until ultimately becoming the Emperor himself.

(Emperor Hadrian)

Hadrian's family came from the province of Spain, his ancestors having settled there after the Second Punic War. Through political connections his father would rise to become a senator of Rome. Because of his family and the fact that his father died when he was rather young he received a guardian named Trajan. Trajan was a soldier who would also rise to the height of Roman society by wearing the imperial purple.

(Hadrian's guardian, adopted father, and predcessor: Emperor Trajan)

Everitt's biography of Hadrian is actually a history of Rome during the mid-imperial period. While Hadrian rises through the ranks of the military and Roman upper-class senatorial society, Everitt also tells the story of the Flavian dynasty of Emperor Vespasian and his two sons, Emperors Titus and Domitian. The three emperors do battle not only in the field but at home in the Senate. The Stoic opposition, senators who resisted these three emperors with civil disobedience, to use a modern term, are quite a handful for the three rulers.

When Emperor Domitian is assassinated he is replaced by a senior senator named Emperor Nerva. Nerva has a short but important reign, he is known as the first of the five good emperors, who guide Rome in what is regarded as its Golden Age. Emperor Nerva adopts Trajan as his son and successor. This puts Hadrian in direct contact with the imperial throne. He works his way up during Trajan's reign, fighting in the army and assisting in the administration of the Empire. He is adopted by Emperor Trajan and succeeds him upon his death.

The book then goes in to the reign of the middle emperor of Rome's five good ones. Hadrian as an emperor was active, liked to travel though his empire, and was generally a good ruler. Emperor Hadrian stops Rome's conquests, wishing to change the Empire's mission from unlimited expansion to defense and internal improvement. Hadrian is a great builder who improves the city and the provinces. Everitt tells of his love affair with Antinous, his trials in the Senate, and his undying love of Greek culture.

The only one complaint I have about this book is the capitalization. I realize I should not care that much but I really cannot stand it. ‘Emperor Hadrian succeeds emperor Trajan as ruler of the Roman empire.’ Seriously, it drives both me and my grammar check nuts. Everitt has retained this practice from his book Augustus, but he did not in Cicero.

Nevertheless this is a great book and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Roman Empire and its rulers.

{Video posted from YouTube}

Saturday, August 27, 2011


A review of Anthony Everitt's Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor (2006)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Anthony Everitt tells the amazing story of the young Gaius Octavius, who grows up to become the man we know as Emperor Augustus. Everitt gives the treatment of Augustus’ life the same way he treated the orator Cicero's. Everitt has an easy to follow narrative that guides the reader from the chaotic early life to the stable rule as the first Emperor of Rome, or what Augustus called his new regime: the Principate.

Born during Cicero's consulship, the young boy grows up in the period of political instability that would result in civil war. His granduncle, Julius Caesar, would be one of the primary actors and winner of the first round. The young boy's life is changed forever when the Dictator is assassinated and he is named Caesar's heir. As Caesar's adopted son, he has Caesar's name as his (only) weapon. It turns out to be a really good weapon as he is able to raise an army and challenge the famous general Mark Antony for control of Rome. Everitt tells the story of them ultimately teaming up and combining their forces to defeat Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, at the battle of Philippi ending all hope of a restored Republic.

“When they disagreed, it was always Octavian who got his way. When he wanted something, he tended to pursue it with single-minded intensity, whereas Antony, seeing himself as the senior partner in government, had the careless self-confidence to give way.” (p.133)

Woe Unto Rufus Tranquillus.

The Second Triumvirate is unstable and it is not long until civil war resumes and the future Augustus and his number one man Agrippa defeat the forces of Antony and Queen Cleopatra at Actium. Antony and the Queen decide to commit suicide than fall into the hands of the merciless young Caesar.

From there on the story is about Augustus' long reign as emperor. Everitt explains the various settlements that were made that let Augustus build up so much power that eventually would create a new indispensable position in Rome. He would redesign the city, and that new design would allow him to gloat that he found Rome made of brick and left it made of marble.

On a slight side note there is one odd difference between Everitt's work on Augustus and his biography on Cicero. The difference is in capitalization. In the previous work, Everitt chose to capitalize titles—which I prefer—and now he does not. I have noticed a change in trend when in grammar when it comes to titles. As a reader of many books it is easy to see the change and I do not like it. I do not know who is leading the charge but I wish they would stop. I much prefer to see Emperor Tiberius of the Roman Empire than emperor Tiberius of the Roman empire—heck even my grammar check thinks this is wrong. The former looks elegant and clean, the later looks like a pile of written horse crap. I am going to be reading another book by Everitt and I hope he returns to his old habits as opposed to his new ones. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book it is a great and exciting read.

{Scenes from the HBO classic series Rome}

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


A review of Anthony Everitt's Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician (2001)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Anthony Everitt's biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero is an enjoyable book to read. Everitt has an interesting writing style. In some ways he is something of the throw back, which I like in certain respects and in others I don't care as much. I like the way he capitalizes titles. Many writers do not do that anymore (Robin Seager hardily capitalizes anything) but it is something that I like to see. Unfortunately, he does not have any footnotes in the main text, that would please Theodore Roosevelt if he reading this book, but I prefer them. He is well researched and all his sources are listed in the back and identified line by line, but I prefer footnotes because they are easier to use.

Everitt takes the reader on a guide though one of the more interesting lives in one of the most interesting times. It is amazing how great events seem to be surrounded by such colorful figures. During his career Cicero would meet and interact with Marcus Crassus, Cato the Younger, Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Mark Antony, and Emperor Augustus. In an age where every politician wanted to be a warrior, Cicero makes a name for himself in the Forum as an orator and advocate instead of commander of legions.

(Marcus Tullius Cicero)

The reader follows Cicero's career as he climes the cursus honorum. It is hard for a 'new man'--one who does not have a senator in his family—to clime the ranks of Rome's offices. But he becomes consul and saves the Republic he loves from the forces of Catalina. However saving the Republic is short lived because its problem was institutional, which—as Everitt points out— was something Cicero could not see. To Cicero, Rome's problems were personal. Cicero felt if the Republic had better men to lead it then its problems would be solved.

“Having thought the matter over Cicero convened a meeting of the Senate early the next morning. It may have occurred to him that Crassus, rattled by Catalina's behavior and to avoid the being implicated in some wild adventure, had himself arranged for the mysterious letters to be written and 'delivered.' That did not matter; the important thing was that he at last had something that looked like proof. Once the Senate had assembled, Cicero handed the letters to their recipients, who read them aloud to the meeting. They all contained information about a plot. Next a report was given on the formation of regular bands of soldiers in Etruria; it was claimed that Manlius would take the field on October 28. The Consul asked to be given emergency powers.” (p.102)

(Cicero saves the Republic)

As time goes on, Rome sees the rise of the First Triumvirate, which he refused to join, and his own life get torn apart by his archenemy Clodius. Cicero recovers just in time for the civil war, an event which angers him to no end. He hated the people on one side and the cause on the other. During the reign of Caesar, Cicero becomes just a sarcastic voice in the Senate.

When the Ides of March come, Cicero career gets immediately revived, and he plays a huge role trying to bring down Mark Antony. But to no avail, the rise the Second Triumvirate ends his dreams and his life.

I really enjoyed this book it tells the tale of relatively minor player, but a great one nonetheless, in one of the more fascinating periods in the history of the world. I would recommend this book for anyone for it is extremely well done.

Video was posted on YouTube by Frasergray95 scenes from the HBO hit series Rome}

Monday, August 22, 2011


A review of Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006)

(Rating 5 of 5)

In the over two thousand years since Julius Caesar was assassinated, many authors have written books about the great general and statesman trying to understand him. Was he a hero or tyrant? A visionary or a just a practical politician? Caesar is a hard man to nail down despite being one the most written about men in ll history. However, I feel I can say with absolute confidence that Adrian Goldsworthy has truly captured the essence of Caesar and has succeeded in writing in—what I feel—is the book on Julius Caesar for the twenty-first century. If you want to know about just who Julius Caesar was then this is the only book on him that you will ever really need. You do not have to be a history buff to both understand and enjoy this book*, Goldsworthy writes a smooth narrative that is devoid of any technical history jargon that usually infests most historical works.

Julius Caesar did a great deal in his fifty-six years on this Earth. Goldsworthy covers his childhood, his time aboard, and his political rise. Throughout the book, Goldsworthy avoids any trace of presentism and also continuously reminds the reader to avoid using hindsight to come to conclusions about events. He also is carefully not to judge one side in a conflict more harshly than the other and does his best to maintain a historian’s impartial distance.

“Roman rule brought to Gaul and other provinces many advantages. At a most basic level it is not unreasonable to say that more people were better off living under the Roman Empire than they were before it came or after it failed. The faults of Roman society—and there were many—were often shared by other cultures including the Gauls. Slavery is an obvious example. The violent entertainments of the arena, which came alongside literature, art and drama as part of Rome's influence, were less usual. Caesar was not responsible for Roman imperialism or for Roman culture, although he was certainly an enthusiastic agent of the Republic's expansion. His conquest of Gaul was not a fulfillment of a long-term aim or ambition, in any sense other than that he had long craved the chance to win glory. It was chance and opportunity that led to him focusing his attention on Gaul.”(p.354-5)

(Caesar accepts Vercingetorix's surrender)

“The benefits of Roman rule are arguable but the grim nature of Roman conquest is not. Caesar was entirely pragmatic—effectively amoral—in his use of clemency or massacre and atrocity. During the course of the conquest of Gaul his soldiers did terrible things, sometimes by order, as when they massacred the Usipetes and Tencteri, and occasionally spontaneously, as when they slaughtered women and children at Avaricum. Other Roman armies under other commanders had done similar things in past and would continue to do so in the future. Indeed atrocities as bad, or even worse, were committed by virtually all armies in the ancient world. This is not to justify what Caesar did, merely to place it into context. Warfare in antiquity was generally an extremely cruel business.”(p.355)

After Caesar's conquest of Gaul he comes home to find his enemies have backed him into a corner. He can either back down in humiliating defeat or do what other disgruntled Roman generals had done since he himself was a boy: invade Rome. The Roman Civil War has become a romanticized period of history. Much like World War II, the Roman Civil War is given a story-like narrative filled with the colorful figures of the age. The power struggle between two of Rome's greatest leaders and their allies locked in a bitter conflict where there can only be one winner.

“The greatest battle of the war, fought by armies commanded by the ablest generals of the age, was about to occur and inevitably sources recounted the great omens that foreshadowed this massive shift in fortune.” (p.425)

For this book does not just feature Caesar. During his life Caesar encountered incredible people. He was the nephew of the great Maris, the son-in-law of Cinna, and he stood up to Sulla when no one else would. Among his colleges during his career were allies such as Crassus, enemies like Cato, friends such as Cicero, and the most intriguing of all Pompey the Great. Caesar and Pompey were two great friends who would become the greatest of rivals. However his most famous encounter is with the great Queen of Egypt.

(Caesar meets Cleopatra)

“When Caesar arrived in Egypt Cleopatra was nearly twenty-one years old and had been queen for almost four years. She was highly intelligent and extremely well educated in the Greek tradition. Later, she would be credited with writing books on a very broad range of subjects. Cleopatra was a noted linguist who it was claimed rarely needed an interpreter when conversing with the leaders of neighboring countries.” (p.438)

One of the insights Goldsworthy makes that I find the most fascinating, is he compares Caesar's two great errors: miscalculating the mood of the Gallic aristocracy and miscalculating the mood of the Roman aristocracy to be, in fact, the same error. In both cases he felt that since his rule was good and benevolent that those who had opposed him would come to his side. In Gaul, he managed to prevail and conquer but in Rome he lost his life.

Death of Caesar
“Caesar tried to change this. In 49 BC he feared falling into the hands of his rivals, just as they were terrified of his returning at the head of an army. In each case the fears may have been ungrounded, but that did not make them any less real. Once the war began Casear paraded his clemency, sparing defeated enemies and in time allowing them to resume their careers. This was calculated policy, intended to win over uncertain and deter the enemy from fighting to the death, but that does not reduce the contrast with his opponents or earlier victors. After he had won, the pardoned Pompeians were allowed back into public life and some treated very well indeed. Once again he clearly felt that this was more likely to persuade them and others to accept his dictatorship. Regardless of his motives, there was a generosity about Caesar's behavior that was matched by no other Roman who came to power in similar circumstances. In the same way, while his lifelong backing for popular causes was intended to win support, at the same time he did implement a number of measures that were in the interest of a wide part of the population.” (p.515)

Goldsworthy is right to title this book the life of a Colossus because that is what Caesar was. His life and legacy left a huge impact on the world that very few historical figures can compare. His legacy still looms large even today for both myself and my county celebrates our birthdays (July 3 and 4) in the month that bears his name.

*Although you probably are a history buff if you are going to read this. After all, who else is going to read an over five hundred page book about Julius Caesar?

{Video is from the already classic HBO series Rome, to which the author was a consultant}

Saturday, August 20, 2011


A review of Robin Seager’s Pompey the Great (1979, original) (2002, my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

I remember once reading, in a Batman comic of all things, a quote that asked how many great champions are known not for their victories but how they were done in by time and a new generation. Does anyone remember Sony Liston for anything else other than being beaten by Muhammad Ali? Although there are a great many historical figures who legacies survive defeat—Hannibal, Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, and Erwin Rommel are great examples—Ca. Pompeius Magnus does not seem to be one of them. On Amazon a list for ‘Pompey’ only four books came up that were just about Pompeius, two that were about him and Caesar, and the rest were about the famous city or other people with ‘Pompey’ in their names. After the first page, Pompeius does not appear much. Caesar on Amazon has endless works about him carrying into the hundreds. It is strange that Pompeius is confined to the dustbin of history; he is just part of Caesar’s story not a character in his own right. Robin Seager does a great job of telling Pompeius’ own story, in which Caesar plays just a part and only shows up half way through.

The book begins with a summary of the major historic events that had happened to Rome since the fall of Carthage. The Republic was coming to pieces because it could not, with rare exception, function as intended. Pompeius starts his career by raising a private army in the service of the Roman Dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Pompeius earns the nickname the ‘young butcher’ in his early service to Sulla.

“On a practical level it seemed best to Sulla to find Pompeius further immediate employment. So Pompeius’ position was for the first time placed on a legal footing. He was invested with praetorian imperium by decree of the senate and sent in pursuit of Carbo, who had fled, when the resistance to Sulla collapsed, and despite his pleas for mercy he was put to death and his head sent to Sulla. His defense of Pompeius in 86 might have given him cause to hope, but Pompeius was never to show any hesitation in betraying old friends when the occasion demanded. For him his link with Carbo must merely have underlined the need to prove his loyalty to Sulla by a suitably harsh and dramatic gesture.”(p.27)

After the Marian forces are defeated Pompeius embarks, first under Sulla, then under a restored Republic, on a career that—for a time—makes him the greatest Roman that had ever lived. He becomes the golden boy who has victories all over the Empire. He wins in Africa, Spain, and Greece. He lifts the pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, and settles the Greek east for the Roman Empire. He serves as consul but his career takes an interesting turn when he forms the ‘First Triumvirate’ with Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar. The triumvirate dominates the Republic for the next decade. Pompeius holds on to power in Rome while Caesar conquers Gaul and Crassus gets himself killed in Parthia. This leads to a standoff with two of the greatest leaders in the history of any civilization. As it was said centuries later as battle between a man who could not accept any other as an equal (Pompeius) vs. the man who would tolerate no superior (Caesar).

“What would Pompeius do if Caesar wanted to exercise it while still retaining his army? ‘What’, said Pompeius very gently, ‘would I do if my son wanted to take a stick to me?’ This reply puts his position in a nutshell. He saw himself as a father, Caesar as his son. In that there was a message, for the optimates could rest assured that Pompeius would act to keep Caesar in his place, subordinate as a son should be to his father, but they were also being warned that he was still not prepared to abandon Caesar, that a bond still existed between them as close as that between a father and his son. Similarly Caesar could read in the words a promise that Pompeius would not forsake him but protect him as a man should his son, but only if he accepted that he owed obedience to Pompeius as a father.”(p.143)

Pompeius chooses to fight for the cause of the optimates but, in opposing Caesar, Pompey is chased out of Italy and in the first time of his life he tastes defeat at the battle of Pharsalus. He has to run as his friends abandon him. Pompeius flees to Egypt where a pharaoh who owes him his crown is expected to provide assistance in his time of need. Pompeius is instead greeted with murder.

The story of C. Pompeius Magnus is one of glory and tragedy. He is raised as high as anyone can go only to be defeat at the hands of one friend and killed at the hands of another. Robin Seager wrote a great book that I would recommend to anyone who wanted to learn more about the famous general Pompey the Great.

{Video was uploaded on YouTube by Princepsmaximus the scenes are taken from the 2003 TNT movie Julius Caesar}