De la Bédoyère, Guy. The Romans for Dummies.

NY: Wiley, 2006.

When this series (as well as “The Idiots Guide to” books) first got started, reviewers always made fun of the running title, and often of the mandatory bad jokes and puns scattered through the text. As time goes on, though, some of the individual volumes have turned out to be quite good. I have a strong background in Greek and Roman history, so I was interested in how well they would pull this one off, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

The author is a freelance writer and TV explainer-of-history, not actually an academic, but he does have a graduate degree in Roman history from the University of London. Those aren’t bad credentials. Instead of taking the traditional, purely chronological approach, he begins with a series of chapters on just what it meant to be “Roman,” from the early Republic to the late Empire — Roman attitudes, the class structure, the way to power, the agrarian national myth, the military, urbanism, domestic life, and attitudes on religion. All these things changed greatly, of course, over a period of nearly a thousand years, but he handles it very smoothly.

Then, he goes back and describes how the city started, the period of kings, the establishment of the Republic, the civil wars, Augustus and the establishment of what became the Empire, the decline into a long run of military emperors (nearly all of whom took power by assassinating their predecessors), and the cooption of the degenerated Roman state by the Christians. Again, his style is easy to follow but he doesn’t stint on detail when it’s useful in showing how things evolved. The somewhat strained mandatory humor is kept under control, though he does tend to lean on British idiom, even when giving comparative examples of things from U.S. history.

The only real complaint I might have, actually, is the author’s assumption, almost his insistence, that Constantine was convinced of the superiority of Christianity even before the Milvian Bridge — which, frankly, is nonsense. Constantine was very much a practical politician and he made careful use of the infant Church in helping him sew up essentially totalitarian power for himself. (After that, of course, the joke was on him, when the Church took complete civil power for itself.)

Nevertheless, with that small caveat, I found this to be an accurate, well-written, and entirely accessible survey for the intelligent novice to the subject.


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