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Monday, February 4, 2013

“Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome”, by Christopher Scarre and Toby A. Wilkinson

240 pages, Thames & Hudson, ISBN-13: 978-0500050774

As a follow-up to The Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak (see below), Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome demonstrates that being a Roman Emperor was not necessarily something to envy. Once proclaimed, the Emperor had to delicately balance happiness between the public at large, the senate, and (most importantly) the Praetorian Guard (the Emperor’s bodyguards). There are many examples in this book of Emperors upsetting one of these groups too much and ending up with their heads on pikes. It seems to have been a shaky, difficult office to maintain. Very few Emperors ended their days in peace, and many were brutally murdered (I cringed more than once while reading this book). One big lesson that too many emperors learned the hard way: do not mess with the Praetorian Guard.

This book begins with a brief summary of the city of Rome: how it grew from a monarchy to a Republic and how Octavian secured absolute power from the Senate and became Augustus, marking the beginning of Imperial Rome, which was to be the Western empire's final phase. The book has three sections: The First Emperors (from Augustus to Domitian); The High Point of Empire (Nerva to Alexander Severus); Crisis and Renewal (Maximinus Thrax to Constantine & Licinius); The Last Emperors (Constantine II to Romulus Augustulus). The book also has a continuous timeline that runs through sections of the book for an at-a-glance history.

It's important to note that this is not a history of the Roman Empire; it's a history of the Roman Emperors. Events not directly (or somewhat) tied to an Emperor are not covered. You won't learn about the daily life of a Roman, for example. Still, through the lineage of Emperors a history of the empire in general can be extracted. Who fought who, who tried to overthrow who, descriptions of how Emperor's wives or mothers influenced (and sometimes took over) government, the conversion from traditional pagan Rome to a Christian Rome (it wasn't ALL Constantine), etc. The fall of Rome is not covered in great detail (the final section is the shortest and the detail becomes almost minimal), but the basic idea that the empire was overrun by various peoples emerges.

The pictures, maps, and graphs throughout the book are incredible and complement the text very well. There are maps of conquests, borders of the empire at specific times, coins, maps of the city of Rome, pictures of busts and mosaics of Emperors, architectural reconstructions, pictures of buildings in their current state, etc. Though this book will not make you an expert on the Roman Empire, it provides a great outline from which to learn more. Once it's read, keep it handy for reference. There are many lessons that can be learned from the lives and mistakes of the men (and women) who ruled Rome.

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