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Friday, February 1, 2013

“Chronicle of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus”, by Philip Matyszak

240 pages, Thames & Hudson, ISBN-13: 978-0500287637

The history of the Roman republic – an epic tale about how one city in Italy overthrew a monarchy, conquered her neighbors, united Italy, defeated all her rivals in the Mediterranean, and descended into civil war and ultimately monarchy again – presents a formidable challenge to any beginner. The republic itself was a political entity so complex it bewildered foreigners and Romans alike. Its magistrates – a dazzling succession of consuls, suffect consuls, dictators, praetors, aediles, tribunes and special commissioners stretching over nearly 500 years – were too numerous for even the Romans (who were otherwise quite happy to list these sorts of things) to bother recording them all. Finally, the evidence of who these men were and what, when, where, and why they did what they did lies scattered across coins, temple inscriptions, grave markers, bronze tablets, pottery shards, and written histories that as often seek to justify as to inform. To reconstruct this fragmentary and sometimes unreliable evidence into an integrated narrative is far too daunting for even the most intelligent and motivated student, which is why anyone interested in beginning to take up the task should begin with The Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak.

After a brief introduction covering “Republican Virtues” and “The Rise of Rome”, the Chronicle is organized into four parts: the regal period, the founding of the republic, the wars of expansion, and the era of Caesar. The basic units of each section are devoted to a single Roman leader, including the famous (Scipio, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Caesar, Brutus), the should-be-famous (Poplicola, Camillus, Marcellus, Livius Drusus, Sertorius), the historically important (Appius Claudius, Flamininus, the Gracchi), the notorious (Flaminius, Galba, Saturninus, Clodius), the legendary (Romulus and Remus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Servius Tullius), and of course those figures of Roman virtues (Horatius Cocles, Cincinnatus, Regulus, and someone the author calls “Cato the Stoic”) who defined the Republic for many generations of students. Helpfully, each of the 57 figures are placed on a proper timeline, and they are listed with basic genealogical facts, offices held, principal achievements, and manner of death. The sum of all this is like a highly approachable and chronologically arranged version of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (or, if you prefer, National Geographic meets Broughton's Magistrates of the Roman Republic).

Although the Chronicle is a very good introduction to the men, events, and society of the Roman republic, its biographical approach needlessly omits much regarding the moral and philosophical ideas that motivated these men. With the exception of the influence of Stoicism on Cato the Younger, one seldom gets the impression that the Romans thought very much or very deeply about where they were going, why they were going there, and what fundamentally they were fighting about. Then (as now) ideas mattered: at the root of many social conflicts was a culture clash (e.g., between Hellenism and the agrarian mos maiorum), and for the Romans whose civitas justified (at least in their own eyes) the annihilation of iron age tribes, it would have been nice to have heard a bit from the men who distinguished the Romans from such expansionist tribes as the Huns. The polymath Varro, the philosopher Lucretius, the poet Catullus, and comedian Plautus must have expressed what some of the leading Romans thought of themselves, their world, and their colleagues and their voices must be considered at least as important as the method for donning a toga. With only these two criticisms, however, I couldn't recommend either a better introduction to the Republic or a more enjoyable reference work for even the well-read Romanophile.

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