Thursday, October 07, 2010

Five of the best books on Rome

Harry Sidebottom was brought up in racing stables in Newmarket where his father was a trainer. He had a basket saddle on a donkey before he could walk. He was educated at various schools and universities, including Oxford, where he took his Doctorate in Ancient History at Corpus Christi College. In similar fashion he has taught at various universities including Oxford, where he is now Fellow and Director of Studies in Ancient History at St Benets Hall, and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College.

At FiveBooks, with Anna Blundy, he discussed five books on Ancient Rome. One of the titles:
The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme

It’s about the fall of the Republic, the overthrow of the Republic and the re-establishment of the monarchy. It’s centred on the life and career of Octavian, who becomes the First Emperor Augustus. It’s a strange and distinctive book, self-consciously literary. Syme, who was something of an old poseur, said his main influence when writing the book was Stendhal, Le Rouge et Le Noir. He employs a method that scholars call prosopography, which is basically the study of marriage links between people, geographic origins of upper-class people, office holdings and stuff. From it he started making patterns of faction politics in the late Republic. It may not be right, but it almost reads like a novel and it’s absolutely fascinating. You get the feeling of going beneath the surface of the straightforward story of the great man Octavian, and you start wondering who the powerbrokers were, who were the behind-the-scenes men? Who were his backers and opponents? It’s a classic of modern scholarship and it’s also about the rise of fascism – he uses Octavian as an allegory of the rise of Mussolini. It’s an incredible book. Slightly daunting because it’s very long. I read it just before I did finals and I’m convinced I got a first in that paper because I’d just read that. It’s got a lovely literary style. As he got older his literary style became a parody of itself. It was always quite brief and Tacitean, but by the end of his life he was writing bizarre sentences like ‘But. Not to men of understanding.’ I’m a Roman historian and I’ve read his later books and thought: I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re arguing.
Read about another book on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue