Lives of the Caesars.
The title of this work is likely to confuse readers who might expect a translation of Suetonius's Lives. Instead, this book presents twelve biographies of Roman emperors by leading experts in the field: Augustus (W. Eck), Tiberius (G. Rowe), Caligula (A.A. Barrett), Claudius (D.W. Hurley), Nero (M.T. Griffin), Vespasian (B. Levick), Hadrian (M.T. Boatwright), Marcus Aurelius (A.R. Birley), Septimius Severus (D. Potter), Diocletian (S. Corcoran), Constantine (N. Lenski), and Justinian (J.A. Evans). The volume also includes illustrations (mainly imperial portraits from busts and coins), a timeline, family trees, maps, a glossary of Roman terms, brief "further reading" suggestions for each chapter, and an introduction to the Roman political system by the editor. The audience targeted is a "non-specialist readership," which might explain the very traditional approach adopted and the emphasis on the current state of knowledge for each emperor rather than new interpretations or approaches (p. 2). This is a very readable book if one enjoys political and military narratives centreed on the highest political spheres.
The attentive reader will find several original insights, even though each chapter being written as a status quaestionis. Eck, for example, challenges the misconception that Augustus organized Germania as a province east of the Rhine. Rowe's biography of Tiberius is mainly based on Velleius Paterculus, whose account is more favourable than the better-known version of Tacitus. Barrett's treatment of Caligula is a good revisionist and balanced discussion that explains away the sources' exaggerations. Similarly, Griffin opens her account of Nero with an important section that criticizes her sources, a desideratum that the other chapters lacked. Boatwright makes good use of inscriptions to present a more complete picture of Hadrian, and Birley challenges the traditional conception that the Antonines established an adoptive principle. At the more anecdotal level, Corcoran presents a new interpretation of the famous episode of Galerius running in front of Diocletian's chariot following a military defeat, which he suggests could be "'symbolic of [Galerius's] determination to win back his laurels" rather than "a deliberate act of humiliation" (p. 233). Corcoran's chapter also includes valuable criticism of Lactantius's distorted views (one of the key, but hostile, sources for Diocletian's reign). In Evans's chapter on Justinian, readers will also find an excellent section on the empress Theodora, a welcom and balanced treatment that surpasses most of the remarks one finds in overviews of Justinian, which are usually based on Procopius's invectives.
Among the weaknesses of the book stand perplexing editorial decisions. The choice of emperors covered in this book is puzzling. While the first six "lives" parallel the Roman biographer, the second hexad is more eclectic. The evident desire to cover a wider span of Roman history is admirable, but the resulting chronological gaps between certain chapters (from the Severans to Diocletian, and from Constantine to Justinian) are likely to confuse the "non-specialist" reader. Similarly, the increasing importance of Christianity in the last two chapters creates an imbalance with the bulk of the book, with Christianity appearing without explanation of its origins. These two pitfalls could have been avoided by substituting the chapter on Justinian with a chapter on Aurelian, for example, which could have discussed important events of the previous reigns of Valerian and Gallienus, while also presenting important precedents to the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine. However, this would still leave us without a biography of Trajan, considered by his contemporaries as the best emperor since Augustus, a serious and problematic omission.
It is unfortunate that "there has been no attempt to impose a rigid conformity" between chapters, especially regarding the use of sources (p. 2). Certain chapters would have benefitted from a brief introductory section presenting the limitations associated with their main sources. The chapters on Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus, which all use the Historia Augusta without disclosure of the problems involved with this source, as well as the chapter on Justinian, which presents redundant comments on Procopius throughout, would all have benefitted from such an editorial directive. Similar lack of uniformity is round in the last three chapters, where "Caesar" and "Augustus" are italicized, whereas they were not until that point. Lenski refers to "scholae palatinae" while Evans labels them "Scholarians," and Lenski's summary of the Tetrarchy, while germane to Constantine's elevation to power, is redundant following Corcoran's chapter, and could have been edited in a smoother way.
Individual chapters also present problems, especially considering the audience targeted. Eck never explains the particular status of Egypt, the significance of the name "Augustus," or what the lex Papia Poppaea entailed. Rowe does not justify his reliance on Velleius Paterculus, nor does he provide contextual explanations to his discussion of Germanicus' death, and he quotes sources at length without comments on the significance of the passages. Griffin misspells Seneca's Apocolocyntosis. Potter glosses over Severus's dismissal and reform of the praetorian guard without explanation and concludes his chapter with an intriguing but unsubstantiated statement (p. 226: Ardashir of Persia was "the principal author of the decline and fall of the Roman empire"). Finally, Evans uses kathisma without defining the term, and presents a controversy as a fact (p. 281: "Theodoric appropriated one-third of the land to support his Ostrogothic followers"). By contrast, Lenski's presentation of Constantine's treatment of non-Christians was a clear transparent discussion of the controversy involved.
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
|Previous Article:||Alexander the Great: A New History.|
|Next Article:||Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments about Marriage in Five Courts.|