The Roman Empire gets a bad rap. This is particularly true of the members of its ruling class, who get the worse of the obvious comparison with Republican virtue, and are often viewed as placeholders and strivers orbiting around one emperor or another, offering nothing to the rest of mankind. No doubt many such existed. But we should not forget that the Empire was a very successful endeavor, especially in its early years, and success would not have been possible without at least some competent and virtuous men in the ruling class. Daisy Dunn’s The Shadow of Vesuvius profiles two such men: Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus; A.D. 23–79) and his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (A.D. 61–c. 113). The two men were very different, yet each strove to benefit and serve Rome, as well as to achieve great things himself, in a way our own ruling class has long since abandoned.
The Roman Empire, or at least the western Roman Empire, is a history of decline, as we all know. But not linear decline, and that matters. Ten Caesars, the latest offering from the always-excellent Barry Strauss, profiles the ten most consequential Roman emperors, narrating the ups and downs of the empire they ruled. Strauss’s book is capsule history, a chapter-by-chapter summary of the profiled emperors, offering facts without many larger explicit conclusions, so there is little new here for anyone with even passing knowledge of the Empire. Think of it, then, as a refresher course.
When we think of Late Antiquity, we usually think of Rome, either its decline in the West or its continuation in the East. When we are feeling particularly adventurous, we may think of the Sassanid Persians, or ponder the stirrings of the Franks in the dark forests of Gaul. We usually don’t think of the farther reaches of the Red Sea—Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and what are today the oil- and blood-soaked sands of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But in the several centuries after Christ, all these were very much part of the known world, if somewhat peripheral. The Throne of Adulis reconstructs, from fragmentary evidence, those centuries, through the prism of wars conducted across the Red Sea.
We live in an age lacking dynamic leadership. We are instead led, if one can call it that, by men who are clowns, feminized, or confused—or, often, by confused feminized clowns. The idea of a charismatic, ambitious, intelligent, unapologetically masculine leader has entirely vanished from our minds, in part because we see no examples among us, and in part because we are indoctrinated such men are retrograde and properly consigned to the past, and we should accept our new, apparently vat-grown, “leaders,” typically resembling some hybrid of John Kerry and Trigglypuff. Still, a heretical little voice whispers to us, pointing out that eras of human flourishing and accomplishment are always led by men of glory, and asking us, why is that?
Different eras view Alexander III of Macedon differently. Though always honored as a hugely successful military leader and conqueror, in the ancient world, he got mixed press, seen as a blend of virtues and faults. In the Middle Ages, and really until the twentieth century, he was usually regarded as among the greatest men of history, and surrounded by myths exaggerating his accomplishments. More recently, without detracting from his military abilities, he has been classed as a killer mad for power. Anthony Everitt, British writer of slick popular histories, tries to move the needle back toward a favorable view of Alexander. But revisionist popular history is a difficult genre to pull off well, and Everitt does not succeed.
I am fascinated by what is to come. For someone who came of age imbibing the narrow, facile, weak, always-second-place conservative pieties of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the chaotic fluidity of today’s Right is something entirely new. There are no straight lines of sight; all is a jumble of splintered mirrors. In this chaos, of which Trump is only one manifestation, it is a sign of something, or rather of many things, that this self-published book by an pseudonymous author, calling for adoption of a supposed ethics of the Bronze Age, is receiving a lot of attention. And as much as I hate to admit it, or think I hate to admit it, the philosophy that runs through this book is likely to drive a lot of discourse, and action, in coming years.
Adrian Goldsworthy is primarily known for lengthy, but highly readable, volumes on Roman history, such as Augustus and The Punic Wars. He has two sidelines, in massive reference works on the Roman military, and in fiction about the Romans. All in all, he’s a busy guy, and I buy every new book he writes. This recent book is short, just two hundred pages, but aspires to offer a complete overview of Roman warfare. An ambitious goal, to be sure, successfully achieved. Still, while Roman Warfare is an excellent book, it is probably best viewed as a gateway drug to more Goldsworthy, as a way to introduce the casual reader, or students, to the fascinating world of Rome.
This is a ferociously erudite book. The author, David Gress, offers an analysis and synthesis of essentially all thought on the idea of the West, from the Greeks to the postmodernists, in a book that seems to contain more than its actual six hundred pages of small print. The amount of thought he presents is astounding. My habit is to write down interesting-sounding books to which an author refers, then buy them. I probably bought thirty books, maybe more, as a result of reading From Plato to NATO. Every portion of this book was interesting—but still, paradoxically, it left me unable to write the type of review I typically write.
How the Roman Republic ended is well known, even in these undereducated days, but all the attention focus goes to Julius Caesar. True, he was the pivot of the actual end of the Republic, but what came before and after was more important. What came after, during the long reign of Augustus, may not be as thrilling as story, but it dictated much of the later history of the West (and of the Roman East, now temporarily in thralldom). This book covers the other side of the transition, what came before—a period that nowadays is nearly forgotten, but is perhaps more critically important in what it can teach us today.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who only recently realised it’s “servandus,” not “servadus.”] The Corpus Juris Civilis was a monumental achievement. Justinian I of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire set out to collect and condense the disparate laws that had evolved in Rome, and then set them down in a coherent, authoritative text. He didn’t literally do it himself—he was the project’s executive (having imperium, at that), with the low-level work being delegated to an army of lawyers and legal scholars and clerks or what have you. The result was actually three texts: the Codex Justinianus, the Institutiones, and the Digesta, or the Digest. The Digest is, I believe, the largest—essentially an encyclopedia of Roman law, organized by topic and consisting of edited excerpts from renowned archaic jurists: Gaius, Ulpian, Julianus, Paulus, and so on.