The Roman Empire
July 1, 2007 8:34 AM   Subscribe

My wife & I have been netflixing the HBO series "Rome" and continually find ourselves asking "did that really happen?" or "is that historically accurate?", which has lead us to wonder which book is the definitive "must read" to understand the Roman Empire during Caesar's time?
posted by tangyraspberry to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Robert Graves' translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is an easy, entertaining read. Suetonius wrote many years after the events, and had a bit of an anti-Imperial bias, but this is probably the easiest way to approach a 'Roman' voice about that era.

That's just Part 1. In my dogeared paperback copy, that ends on about page 50. Suetonius will take you through the next century or so as well, including some of the juicy bits about Caligula, Nero, Domitian, etc.

The Wikipedia article about the series has a section devoted to historical deviations.
posted by gimonca at 8:53 AM on July 1, 2007

Simmlarly inspired, I have recently enjoyed Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy, and Rubicon by Tom Holland
posted by shothotbot at 9:18 AM on July 1, 2007

Seconding Rubicon. It's a great read.
posted by TrashyRambo at 9:28 AM on July 1, 2007

The biggest historical inaccuricies, beyond the time line bouncing around for the format of the show, occurs with the way women are represented and when the show moves to Egypt.

The concept of women scheming behind men is an interesting one, but a purely modern take. While I don't doubt women had some influence, actual society was nowhere near as egalitarian as the show depicts it. The whole Pullo subplot with Augustus is along the same lines as unlikely to happen. It is a very Romanticized view of social politics in the era.

But, the part which is patently false, and one has a hard time explaining away, is the depiction of Cleopatra and her consorts. As descendants of Hellenic Greeks, they most certainly did not take on the culture (hairstyle, clothing, makeup) of Egyptians until much, much later. The cultural differences would have been minimal at best, as later in the series this becomes somewhat of an important point with Antony and Cleopatra shack up.

During orgy scenes and scenes in which the supposed hedonism of Rome is to be shown, there is a lot of opium smoking. The pipe, and the smoking of opium, did not occur until at least the 18th century,
posted by geoff. at 9:34 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by matteo at 9:46 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

You know, I think I'd start with the Gallic Wars, written by Julius Caesar himself. That will at least give you a feel for how the old boy thought. Yes he talks about himself in the third person. After all, we have to remember how glorious he is!

And somebody else has translated it from the original Latin for you ;-)
posted by ilsa at 10:11 AM on July 1, 2007

I wonder the same thing about Graves' I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I just read them both recently (and I understand that Graves would have to take some creative license to make it interesting) but I wonder how much of it is factual. Anyone care to comment?

Sorry to piggyback.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:38 AM on July 1, 2007

I believe Suetonius was the main source for Graves' Claudius books.

I have not seen Rome, but Geoff's comment about Cleopatra is very accurate. There has been a decades long effort to make Cleopatra Egyptian, and therefore African, and therefore Black. However Cleopatra's heritage seems to be pretty well established, or as well established as these things can be.
posted by BigSky at 11:33 AM on July 1, 2007

I asked a very similar question awhile back:
posted by captainscared at 12:41 PM on July 1, 2007

I believe Suetonius was the main source for Graves' Claudius books.
My understanding also. In spite of that I heartily recommend (second) reading all three: The Twelve Caesars, I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:43 PM on July 1, 2007

BTW -- you might find these previous threads to be of interest - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

There are many great resources and links mentioned in theses threads with book recommendations prominent in #1.
posted by ericb at 12:49 PM on July 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm listening to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the moment. It works well as an audio book. Obviously, if one can use the term of a classic, it is out of date, and certainly top-down history. (The linked wikipedia artucle mentions criticism of it briefly.)

Entirely differently, there is Lindsey Davis's series about a private detective in forst century Rome (and other places - he gets around). Very memorable and rnjoyable. She discusses historical accuray - and mistakes - on her website.
posted by paduasoy at 12:54 PM on July 1, 2007

Damn, "first", "enjoyable", "accuracy". That'll teach me to type in the dark.
posted by paduasoy at 12:57 PM on July 1, 2007

As far as Antony in Egypt, I figured the producers wanted to dramatize Octavian's propaganda that Antony had gone all soft and Greek under Cleopatra's insidious spell. Plus you know the BBC will film an orgy on the flimsiest excuse.

I also should have mentioned above that Robert Harris covers much the same time period in his dramatization of the life of Cicero, the first volume of which is Imperium.
posted by shothotbot at 1:37 PM on July 1, 2007

If you like to continue with the more fictionalized history of Rome, you should start reading Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" series which covers most of the Republic up to the early Empire (Octavian), which is also where the Rome series left off.
posted by elle.jeezy at 2:17 PM on July 1, 2007

An excellent companion to the series would be H.H. Scullard's text 'From the Gracchi to Nero'. The civil war is midway through the time period it covers, but more importantly, it gives you some insight into just what the Republic was and why people felt so strongly about keeping it. It also makes explicit the tension between Optimates and Populares factions that underpins much of the narrative in Rome.

Also, the Wikipedia page are great in unravelling what was real and what is simply artistic licence.
posted by tim_in_oz at 3:14 PM on July 1, 2007

Rubicon by Tom Holland is a excellent overview of the entire period - although it does tend to veer to the great man school of history!
posted by seamus0803 at 4:55 PM on July 1, 2007

Wikipedia also has an excellent timeline of the show's episodes and historical events. (Ten years pass between the penultimate episode and the last one, and the last episode covers a year and a half, for example.)
posted by kirkaracha at 5:16 PM on July 1, 2007

The pipe, and the smoking of opium, did not occur until at least the 18th century,

Updates suggest otherwise.

I believe Suetonius was the main source for Graves' Claudius books.

Graves himself said otherwise, and cited a shelf of contemporary literature on the period. Mind you, he also said he was more or less channelling Claudius, so take what you will.

Suetonius is a gossip and a lot of fun, but a few grains of salt are in order. Tacitus, well.... Problem with Tacitus is that he can never ascribe any good or even mixed motive to anyone (except his own father in law), which can get kind of tiresome, even suspect, after a while.

Of the moderns, seconding Scullard.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:22 PM on July 1, 2007

Suetonius is a gossip and a lot of fun

Same goes for Graves. He was a poet, not a historian, no matter how many scholarly works he claimed to have read.
posted by languagehat at 5:30 PM on July 1, 2007

For this period, Appian's Civil Wars and Plutarch's Lives of Pompey, Cicero, Caesar, Antony, and Brutus; Caesar's Gallic Wars and Civil Wars; Suetonius' Lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus; Augustus's Res Gestae Divi Augusti (an autobiographical proclamation by Augustus of his deeds). Reading Cicero for history is harder than it looks and not advisable if you are starting out.

Reading about the Empiire won't tell you so much about the late Republic (the Republic and the Empire are usually taught as separate courses beyond the general survey level).

However, some social history spans the entire period.
Susan Treggiari's Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (1991) and Craig Williams' Roman Homosexuality (1999) give some background to the private-life details in HBO's Rome, and both are very readable, not too "academic." On the army, Lawrence Keppie's The Makng of the Roman Army (new ed. 1998) focuses on the late Republic-to-Empire transition.

I have a couple of degrees in classics and Roman history, and I was able to watch "Rome" without wincing -- I enjoyed it, in fact, despite obvious liberties taken with the narrative (for this period far too many narrative details survive) and characters (the scenery-chewing Atia did not exist as she is depicted in the show).

Anachronistic jokes were annoying -- people today can't imagine "decadence" without drug use; though Herodotus mentions that the Scythians (a people in the Black Sea region) burned hemp in saunas, Greek and Roman debauchery was limited to eating, drinking, and sex. (On forms of immorality, Catherine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (1993) and James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: Consuming Passions in Classical Athens (1997).)

It was also enjoyable to see Octavian (the future Augustus) played in the second series as a young, aspiring cold-blooded tyrant, because the ancient authors tend to venerate him much as we do George Washington. For the tyrant, Sir Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution (1938) is still insightful. It was written to deflate classical scholars' admiration of Augustus and the Roman Empire in Mussolini's Italy and in Nazi Germany.

I haven't given links because some of these books may be out of print; a good academic library will carry them all and the classical texts.
posted by bad grammar at 5:39 PM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you have the patience to wade through the hundreds of pages, the Televisio without Pity forum on the Rome series had some pretty good analysis of what was fact and what was likely dramatic license.
posted by fuse theorem at 9:35 PM on July 1, 2007

Start with Cary and Scullard's "Roman History" which is a standard undergrad textbook and an easy read.*

2nding Tacitus; and Suetonius who was a scurrilous little guttersnipe. It's pinch of salt reading, but it's a great romp. Has anyone mentioned Livy yet? And look out for Cassius Dio. (Penguin translations are fun)

Oh and hey, Julius Caesar wrote, nice, plain easy to understand prose.

*I see "From the Gracchi to Nero" has been recommended also. Almost the same book really.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 1:10 AM on July 2, 2007

Get Paul Veyne's A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. It covers more of the period than you are focussed on, but it does a better job than pretty much anything out there in getting into the heads of the contemporary Romans - what they thought, their prejudices and superstitions, how they related to each other. It's especially good at exploring the transition between the "classical" Romans and the Christian Romans - that weird period between 150 and 300 CE when the hardcore belief in the old State religion had atrophied and the Empire was being swept by one mystery cult after another.
posted by meehawl at 10:33 AM on July 2, 2007

Also worth reading, for a sidelong "history," are the satires of Horace and Juvenal, which do a fair job of showing what day to day life was like (well, for the complainers anyway). And The Satyricon is a great source for an outre look at Roman diet.
posted by klangklangston at 11:02 AM on July 2, 2007

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