Making Sense of Roman History: A Reading List

Inspired by Tanner Greer, I’ve decided to put together a list of books that I think will useful to understanding the Romans from the perspective of a non-specialist without a background in Latin, or Classics more broadly (I am in this category obviously).

First, I’m a big fan of Michael Grant’s History of Rome. Grant was a historian who wrote a great many books for the popular audience, and his History of Rome is a comprehensive survey. I’ve read it multiple times. Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a more contemporary take which covers a similar period. But I’m not sure it’s as useful if you have less background than Grant’s more traditional sequence.

Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: From Homer to Hadrian covers a lot more than Rome, but what it does cover that is Greek is essential to understanding Rome.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC is a good read on a classic topic. Goldsworthy is a military historian, and it shows. To be frank I haven’t read many treatments of the republican period since so much of it is back-loaded to the decades before the principate. But Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus illuminates this critical juncture in Roman history well enough.

There are so many nearly novel-like treatments of figures from the Second Triumvirate and the Julio-Claudians that I’m not going with anything conventional: try Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. Colin Wells’ The Roman Empire focuses on the imperial apogee and the early years of the 3rd-century troubles. It’s a bit pedestrian but has interesting quantitative data like the decline in the proportion of soldiers of Italian origin over the centuries. If you’ve read the survey above then you know why Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: Year of Four Emperors is important to read.

I think biography is a pretty good way to get a sense of particular periods. With that in mind, Frank McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius: A Life and David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor are useful if a bit plodding and overmuch for the casual student.

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians are all critical contemporary analyses of the end the Roman polity. Written from an archaeological, environmental scientific, and narrative historical angles, they give different viewpoints on the same questions. These are all more or less responses to the sort of work written by Peter Brown a generation earlier, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, which argues against the idea of the fall. From a different perspective (the barbarian), The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome, though to be frank this book is as much about Aetius as it is about Attila.

Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome is one of the many books on the topic of “daily life” during this period and place. You should read at least one of these.

I’m not a humanist in Tanner’s league, so you won’t get poetry recommendations from me, but Aupelius’ The Golden Ass is the only complete surviving Latin novel. It’s rather weird. You surely know the list of eminences of the Latin poets, but Ovid’s Metamorphoses induced less labor than Virgil’s Aeneid. I recall thinking Virgil was a bit too “try hard.” Unlike The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and History of Rome, both of which I’ve read more than half a dozen times front to back, with literature I usually read once, and don’t retain too much. I’m a Philistine!

Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires and Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations are interesting comparative analyses. If you had to pick between the two, go with the first. But that’s because purely intellectual histories are not as interesting to me.

Historical fiction isn’t always accurate, but it really brings the dramatis personae alive. Colleen McCoullough’s First Man in Rome series is excellent, especially the first few novels. Everyone knows Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. But my teenage-self really enjoyed Allan Massie’s Let the Emperor Speak, about Augustus, and Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor. Gore Vidal’s Julian: A Novel is well written and engaging, though a little light on history (not surprisingly there is a lot of editorializing by Vidal through Julian).

You have in some way read the works of Seutonius,Tacitus, and Livy because they are the foundation for so much of the narrative works written today. They are also the source material for fiction and dramatizations. If you want to “go back to the sources”, give Ammianus Marcellinus a try. He’s overlooked, and he’s excellent.

Rodney Stark wrote The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries back when he was a scholar and not a polemicist. I’m skeptical of some of his conclusions, but his thinking here is rigorous. It’s not the long scream that his last few books have been. Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians is complementary to The Rise of Christianity. Michelle Salzman’s The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire is worth a very deep read, as it synthesizes textual analysis with some quantitative work.

Some of the New Testament is interesting too. I especially think that the material attributed to St. Paul, a Roman citizen, is worth reading closely.

And finally, St. Augustine is worth a read. City of God is interminably long, but Confessions is more compact, and the beginning of a whole genre which eventually culminated in James Frey.

Books you look at but don’t buy

A little while ago I was curious about the books people looked at through my links which they nevertheless did not buy. More precisely I was looking at a 90 day interval. The top book people clicked but did not buy was Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. I know this is an expensive book, but if you can afford it you should buy and it read it. The reasoning is that quantitative genetics is no longer an abstruse topic, as I’m seeing economists conflate correlation of traits between relatives and narrow sense heritability. People have opinions on this topic. Loads.

If you talk about regression to the mean, but barely understand how it works, perhaps you should read Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.

Here the remaining of the top 15 (in order from most clicked to least):

The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible
Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. This is a good book. I’ve read it three times.
The History and Geography of Human Genes
George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones 5-Book Boxed Set
Principles of Population Genetics. Really readers? This is why more of you are not HWE aware….
Adaptation and Natural Selection
The Nurture Assumption
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
In Gods We Trust
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology

Also, I can go back to 2014. Looking over 90 days from 2014, 2015 and 2016, here are the top 15:

2014 2015 2016
Principles of Population Genetics Freedom at Midnight The Great Ordeal
In Gods We Trust Power and Plenty Sex Segregation in Sports
The Bible with Sources Revealed Why Sex Matters The Dialectical Imagination
Why Sex Matters The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics The History and Geography of Human Genes
The Transparent Society The Mating Mind Python for Data Analysis
The First Man in Rome Mutants Plagues and Peoples
The Barbarian Conversion In Gods We Trust Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
Nature’s God 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Introduction to Quantitative Genetics A History of the Byzantine State and Society Why Sex Matters
The Rise of Western Christendom Principles of Population Genetics Taboo
The Great Arab Conquests The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey Design Patterns
Religion Explained A Concise Economic History of the World A Beautiful Math 
The Nurture Assumption The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories The Great Human Diasporas
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus The Genetics of Human Populations The Seven Daughters of Eve
The Invisible Gorilla A Beautiful Math   Calculus Made Easy

Why Sex Matters has always been a book that gets a lot of clicks. I think it is the title. But it’s rather old now, and on an old fashioned topic: sex differences. Totally milquetoast in the 2000s, but probably very problematic today….

The survivorship bias in book ratings

Just finished The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith, and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads. At nearly 700 pages of narrative text The Fortunes of Africa is not a small book, but it’s pretty dense with fact and a “quick read”. The author is good at balancing narrative flow with packing a lot of information into any given page.

But as I rated the book I realized that the vast majority of my ratings are 4 out of 5. I reserve 5’s for really good books. But why so few ratings less than 4? Obviously, this is due to survivorship bias: in general, I’m not going to finish a book that I don’t like, and I won’t rate books that I don’t finish.

Additionally, the longer a book is, the better it probably has to be for me to finish it. If it is a short book (less than 200 pages) I may just push all the way through, but in general anything longer and I won’t read “cover-to-cover.” When I was younger I would sample chapters and such, but for whatever reason as I’ve gotten older I generally adhere to the sequential structure as envisioned by the author.

Of course there are exceptions. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is very long. In general I did not really enjoy reading it (though it has its moments, in particular when it comes to history of science), but finish it I did. I read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in full because it was Gould’s magnum opus, and the best place to get a sense of his thought without ploughing through his whole oeuvre. Though I did not think much of Gould’s ideas personally (few people with an evolutionary genetics orientation do), he was objectively an intellectual of some standing and influence, so it is useful to understand his thought. He mattered, for better or worse.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was Stephen Jay Gould’s last book (he died two months after it was published). He had become such an enormous public intellectual that he was clearly beyond the power of any editors to control his prose flourishes. It’s a prolix repetitious work (I read Wonderful Life more recently, and it benefited from being more tightly written).

In contrast when I read The Twilight of Atheism Alister McGrath I thought it was a decently well written book, but totally unpersuasive on the merits of the substance. But after ten years I think descriptively McGrath was right in some deep ways. So I’d probably change my rating of this book between then and now.

So categories of books I read all the way through:

  • Books I enjoy. I’ve read The Fall of Rome three times. I’ve only read The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection front to back a few times, but some chapters (especially the earlier ones) I’ve read many times.
  • Books which are important. I’ve read probably two dozen translations of Genesis in my life (it’s a short book when standalone, so not a big achievement). A lot of the religious stuff I read is because religion is so important to people, even if it isn’t important to me. Honestly, the same with a lot of philosophy.
  • Books which challenge my viewpoints in a substantive sense. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and The Twilight of Atheism fall into these categories. I was a much more doctrinaire libertarian when I read Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds, which engaged some apologia for Marxist-Leninism.

The Warlord Chronicles

The Winter is Coming website has a post up, What books should you read as you wait for The Winds of Winter? (The Winds of Winter is the next Song of Ice and Fire book).

I don’t have much time for fiction at this point, but the first entry that they suggested was Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. This is a very dark, gritty, and realistic, retelling of the Arthurian legend, written in a fashion more reminiscent of historical fiction than fantasy. I read this series perhaps a year after first reading Game of Thrones, and was struck by similarities of tone.

As it happened this was before George R. R. Martin was quite as famous, and I emailed him at some point in 2000 about various issues relating to his works and inspirations, and asked him about Cornwell’s series. Martin admitted that he was a huge fan, and appreciated that there were similarities of style and tone.

In any case, I second this recommendation. Warlord Chronicles is not the most easy read…but worth it.

The year shall belong to those who finish

Seeing as how I have three children, I don’t think I’m admitting my virginity when I admit that I am mildly excited that Brandon Sanderson’s third volume of his ten volume The Way of Kings, Oathbringer, is coming out in the fall.

Sanderson writes at a fast clip and finishes lots of books. Yes, his prose doesn’t stay with you like that of some other fantasists. But after all the years waiting for the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire, there’s something to be said for actually delivering something to the public.

Not that I myself get through many works of fiction per year anymore. I’ve had The Wise Man’s Fear on my Kindle for seven years now. I keep waiting for the final entry so I can just finish the last two in one sitting. And yes, there’s Seveneves. All in good time….