A Brief History of the Roman Empire

Posted: June 9, 2014 in Book reviews
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By Dr Stephen Kershaw

I enjoy history, always have, it was my favourite subject at school and the subject I studied at University. However, to paraphrase Douglas Adams here, History is big, really big, so there are quite a few eras that I really haven’t the slightest clue about, and the Roman Empire is one of these so I picked this book up a couple of months ago thinking it would give me a good grounding in the subject, and to a point it has.

It should be said that the book itself isn’t brief, it’s over 400 pages long, but given it covers the period between 27 BC and 476 AD one imagines it’s as brief as you could get away with.

Kershaw is an erudite writer, he clearly knows his stuff and can impart much of it without the need to use dry academic language. There are a lot of interesting facts on display…and some are pretty lurid it has to be said, Kershaw doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the sexual and violent aspects of the Empire and the emperors.

What problems I had with the book were less to do with Kershaw’s writing than the nature of the material at hand. Firstly, however accessible Kershaw’s writing is, he does have to rely on a lot of Latin terms/Roman acronyms etc. And whilst Kershaw does do his best to keep reminding you what things are, or referring you back to where it’d discussed things previously, sometimes it does become a little confusing. For example I kept having to check what SPQR meant, even though it’s fairly obvious once you know. Linked in with this people had similar names, and everyone seemed to have four or five names and a number added Caesar or Julius or Augustus to their names upon becoming Emperor.

This feeds into the second problem, which is the confused nature of the Empire itself, particularly in later centuries. At first it’s easy to keep track of what’s going on. The Emperors are well known: Caesar, Nero, Tiberius, Caligula etc. And they stay in power for years, decades even. Over time the proliferation of emperors becomes ever more confusing. There are years where five or more men serve as emperor, and towards the end you start to wonder why anyone would have wanted to be Emperor given the average life expectancy seemed to be about three weeks! Keeping track of the emperors is hard, and this is even before you factor in co-emperors, wives, military officers, eunuchs, barbarians, bishops, heirs, pretenders etc. etc. etc…argh!

And this is also before the Empire splits into East and West, before the invasion of the barbarian hordes; Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Vandals and so on and so forth…

The result of all this was that, whilst I enjoyed the first half of the book, it increasingly became a chore to keep reading, in the end I was desperate to finish reading it just so I could pick up something more interesting.

As I say though, the problems are more down to the subject matter than the author, and even in the later chapters Kershaw peppers the text with enough interesting facts to stop you from nodding off. As an introduction to a wide swathe of history I thought it was good, and hopefully it’ll serve as a handy reference book to dip in and out of from now on.

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