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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

“The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome 318 B.C. – A.D. 476”, by Michael Grant


367 Pages, Barnes & Noble Books, ISBN-13: 978-0760700914

The subtitle of this book says it all: this is not a history of the Roman Empire but, rather, is a series of short biographies of the Roman emperors, from Augustus to the last western emperor, Romulus Agustulus (the Eastern Roman Emperors who reigned concurrently with those of the west are also covered, but as the book ends in 476, so succeeding eastern emperors, such as Justinian I, are not covered). The biographies range from one to eight pages. With each containing a photograph of a statue or coin depicting the emperor. The book is in keeping with Michael Grant’s high level of scholarship, but being a collection of short biographies, the overall flow of the text is compromised, making the material factual but very dry. Grant has also toned down some of the more salacious stories; for instance, while some of the outrageous actions ascribed to Caligula are mentioned, they are not dwelled upon, making him appear much less of the monster described in most other books. This is definitely NOT the book to read if you are interested in the tabloid history of the emperors of Rome.

I realize that this is a book of biographies and on that score it delivers as promised, but I feel that the book could have been improved by the addition of a bit more material. I would have liked to see a discussion of the Roman government and army and its evolution from the republic to the empire; I would also have liked to see some narrative material that tied the biographies together. For instance, the biographies of 15 emperors (some of who reigned for only a few months and one for only 17 days) are given for the period of 235-270 AD, resulting in biographies that tended to blur together. The book became very repetitious, as the biographies of many of the emperors cover much the same ground (as they should since they all were involved with each other). I would have liked a brief summary to tie things together, with more background details in addition to the individual biographies, but if you want to know more about Gordian I, Gordian II, Gordian III, Trebonianus Gallus, Maximinus II Daia, or Severus II this is the place to go. While this book is also a good source for information about the most important emperors such as Diocletian, Constantine the Great and Theodosius II, in addition to the less well known ones, there are other sources that cover the most important emperors in much more detail.

While I acknowledge that it is meant to be a general reference book, it could have been of much greater use if it had some background material, an index, some text linking the biographies together and text that was not so dry and repetitious. However, given the quality of the individual biographies and the fact that it is meant as a reference book providing material that is not easily available from other sources, I can recommend this book warmly.


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