337 pages, Free Press, ISBN-13: 978-1416583035
No single book can tell the story of the Roman Empire; the best any one book can do is focus on one aspect and tell the story of Roman Empire through that focus. In Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire Annelise Freisenbruch attempts to give an alternative history of Imperial Rome the lives of the notable women of the Empire (and not just those who were married to a Caesar) from the Julio-Claudian emperors of the 1st Century AD to the end of the Roman empire in 476 AD.
Anyone familiar with the history of the Roman Empire knows that recounting the historical narrative is difficult; many historical figures are known by multiple names and the same name is common to many historical figures. Freisenbruch includes multiple genealogical charts to help the reader navigate through the morass of names, but her style of writing adds to the confusion. For instance, in the first paragraph of chapter one, the story begins with Nero and his 17-year-old wife, Livia, running for their lives in a burning forest; in the very next paragraph, the text jumps to the political fallout following the assassination of Julius Caesar, which is then followed by a comparison of Livia to Cleopatra, which brings us back to a brief biography of Nero. Nowhere in the chapter does the author take the reader back to the burning forest and how Nero and Livia made their escape. Similarly, chapter five begins with a discussion of two plays about the emperor Titus and his mistress Berenice – that premiered in 1610. Berenice’s story is quite an interesting historical figure (she is even mentioned the Bible), but it would have been a lot clearer for the author to recount her story first and then report that in the Middle Ages her life was made into competing plays, not the other way around.
A journey through the history of the women of the Roman patriarchy is a fine subject worthy of exploration, and while interesting for Roman history buffs, this book can be somewhat disappointing in that most of the personalities don't exactly leap off the page (unlike so many of the Roman men about whom one reads over and over). But this probably isn’t the fault of the author; there just isn’t that much information available about Roman women, even the prominent ones, and much of that information is biased to boot. In a society where the role of the virtuous woman was to be unseen, unheard, and unheard about, this is hardly surprising; even ladies of talent and category were whitewashed in Roman histories, to preserve the virtuous image of their families. As noted above, this is an interesting and easy read for those who really love Roman history, but others may not be drawn to it.