Monday, 26 October 2020

Book review: Ten Caesars, Barry Strauss (2019)

I bought this at Gleebooks while on a mission to find books on Rome. This is a good primer for the imperial period, achieving its goals by focusing on each of the main emperors – a term that in plain Roman terms meant “victorious general” – each in turn, starting with the first, Augustus.

Some readers will try to find their favourite, but I wager all readers will be entranced by Strauss’ exhaustive knowledge and attention to detail. Nevertheless, he proceeds apace and you never find the narrative flagging. For those who might, after reading this book, want more in-depth information on Nero, for example, or Vespasian, other books can be consulted.

As far as the topic goes, it’s clear that the emperor was never an absolute ruler, and functioned to manage a range of different interest groups – the Senate, the armed forces, and the public – and to ignore the wishes of any of which could be fatal. 

Much like a modern-day constitutional monarchy like Australia – where I was born, grew up, and where I live – ancient Rome was a place where people could succeed given cunning and talent. The imperial system to a certain degree freed up the elites of many countries, allowing them to participate more fully in a large, diverse polis. It is arguable that the self-contained Roman aristocracy, which controlled it during the republican period, was less flexible, and less able to accommodate newcomers. Certainly, Vespasian and his son Titus were able to even enter the pantheon, and rule effectively. They were better emperors than some of blue blood like Nero or Claudius.

The place of the emperor-as-god is something that others have described less well than Strauss, for example Mary Beard (whose ‘SPQR’ I reviewed recently). The ceremonial and formal duties of the emperor were critical for the health of the polis – as the Senate and the legions understood. This is clear if you read history. If anything, the ceremonial functions of the ruler are just as important as his or her executive or military functions, even in a place as warlike as ancient Rome.

Strauss’ book is a fabulous place to start for anyone keen to learn about it but more attention might’ve been given to the issue of religion, a failing that dogged the pages I read in Beard’s book as well. Further reviews on related matters to follow.

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