Science + History = Awesomeness

I found The Fate of Rome SUPER fascinating. And I’m usually not into the whole Rome-is-dying-lets-find-out-why genre of Roman History. (I prefer stories about people doing their jobs well rather than people screwing up.) But The Fate of Rome applies all kinds of updated scientific techniques to history, telling a story of disease and climate change affecting the Roman Empire, and how competent (or not) rulers played into that.

There are two parts that really stick in my brain.

First, there’s a thing in Roman History called The Crisis of the Second Century. Basically after Commodus (the emperor portrayed in Gladiator), the Roman Empire kind of falls apart. The usually theories that are put forth are around inflation and rulers who don’t get the trust of the military (both of which were problems, don’t get me wrong). There’s a whole line of study that tries to answer the question, “Why didn’t the Empire fall apart during the second century? Because it maybe should have.”

BUT, there is new analysis of the epidemic that hit the Roman Empire during the second century, with a truly appalling death rate of somewhere around 60%. The Antonine plague, as it’s known, has been discussed plenty. It’s typically identified as a type of smallpox. There was a plague about 100 years later that has never been identified, and it is usually assumed to be another wave of smallpox. However, using modern epidemiology & pathology techniques and Galen’s discussion of the symptoms, it seems way more likely to be a type of ebola. Both diseases have truly appalling death rates: 30-40% for smallpox, possibly as high as 70% for ebola. Either way, the combination of plagues had a HUGE destabilizing effect on society.

The second part that really sticks in my brain requires a slightly longer explanation. By the 500s, the Roman Empire had been split into two and the Western half had fallen. The Eastern Half, now known as the Byzantine Empire, was still around. The emperors would occasionally try to reincorporate the Western Half, but would usually not make it very far.

Until Justinian, who was a super-capable human being. He had a general he could trust and who succeed in starting to bring Italy back into the fold during the 530s. And then 536 hit. No one knows why, but 536AD is the coldest year in the last 2000 years. Core ice from glaciers and tree-ring evidence show that there was a HUGE volcanic explosion in 536 and another in 539. This coupled with lower solar activity during the time (measured by the amount of certain radioactive elements in the air caused by solar radiation that then precipitate onto the glaciers), was hugely devastating. No sun means no crops means no food. Combine that with a conquering army sweeping across your land? Disaster.

Suffice it to say, Justinian didn’t succeed in rejuvenating the Western Roman Empire.

I learned SO MUCH about both how to combine history and science reading The Fate of Rome and so much more about why the Western Roman Empire fell. If you are at all into history, I highly recommend it.

Ignoring the feminine

Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.

Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.

There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.

This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.

We don’t all have to like the same stuff

This is the second Adrian Goldsworthy book that I’ve tried to read and failed. It turns out that his books are not for Kates. I do know people who very much like his stuff; your milage may vary.

My main issue was that Pax Romana, instead of being about peace in the ancient Roman world, was actually about war and the military. Now, the subtitle of the book, yes, does state that it was also about war, but for the life of me, I could not find the “how was life during the peaceful times or maybe away from the frontiers where the fighting actually happened.”

And yes, the military is a huge part of Ancient Rome – but that’s why the title of this one intrigued me. I wanted a look from a different point of view, tell me about the other parts. I didn’t get the peace bits, and it bored me after awhile.

Alas, I couldn’t finish it, not even after trying for months. I finally, guiltily put it down a couple of weeks ago.

Before the republic became the empire

If you (like me) mostly read popular history about Ancient Rome, you know the story of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar backwards and forwards. The super short version is: Pompey and Caesar were both famous, powerful generals and politicians in the Roman Republic. By the time they were done competing for control of Rome – Caesar won, Pompey was dead – Rome was effectively an empire instead of a republic. (HBO made a fictionalized series.) But, for such a fundamental political change to happen, the battle had to have been much, much bigger than just a political rivalry between two men.

The changes started 100 years earlier, as:

  • Rome starts conquering land that is further and further away from Italy;
  • more money starts coming in from those conquered lands and staying in the hands of the elite;
  • the elite need standing armies to fight far away wars;
  • but those armies are loyal to a particular general and not to the state;
  • not to mention, the elite split into two main political factions; and
  • those factions start caring more about winning than they do about governing properly.

Basically, the state needed to be reformed as Rome grew in size and in wealth, and those in power refused to change. It lead to lots of war and death and power grabs.

The Storm Before the Storm talks about these earlier years much more coherently than I can here. There are compelling figures and a wide sweep of history that echoes to current American politics (but with important differences).

It’s worth your time if you (like me!) enjoy learning about ancient Rome.

I’m not going to remember it in a month

The Accusers is a perfectly adequate murder mystery that happens to take place in Ancient Rome (and you know how I get about Ancient Rome). There are lawyers and togas and money trails and murder and wine and affairs and trials and atriums. It fit the bill, but was mostly unremarkable. I really won’t remember much about it in a month.

I’ve enjoyed others in this series more, is what I’m saying.

When the patriarchy was even stronger

Agrippina by Anthony A Barrett

Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.

Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:

  1. Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
  2. She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
  3. Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.

So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.

Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.

So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

I liked this one.

Powerful women getting the short end of the story-telling stick this time


Even those of you who don’t like to read about Ancient Rome have probably heard of Augustus Caesar. He’s the one who saw Rome through its final leap from Republic to Empire. He was, by all accounts, intelligent and fairly ruthless. Livia was his wife. She – as most powerful women do – got a bad rap, particularly from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. *

This seemed like a good opportunity to read a book about someone who’s pulled all the tidbits about Livia together into one coherent story. It should be interesting. Alas, it wasn’t. Records about women tend not to survive this long; the paucity of information means that the author relied on general observations about life at this time. That wasn’t what I wanted to know about. I remain dissatisfied.

There may very well be a good book about Livia out there. But it wasn’t this one.

* Which is a wonderful soap opera and a great opportunity to see Patrick Stewart with curly hair. Highly recommended.

History and myth

Rise of Rome

Ah, back to my interest in ancient Rome. The Rise of Rome is a basic, popular overview of the first 700-ish years of the Roman Kingdom and Republic. It’s all pre-Empire. It’s a good overview – and lets face it, a similar book sparked my own curiosity back in high school.

That said, there are a couple of not-so-small points. Sources are super-important, and the sources for history this far back are not great. In fact, the Goths sacked Rome in 387bce and destroyed all the records. All of it. So anything we have prior to that year is in the realm of mythology. The archaeology can help some, but there’s a lot that’s basically just legend – Cincinnatus, the original Brutus, Romulus, Remus, the rape of the Sabines… who knows if any of that really happened? The Rise of Rome doesn’t even mention that – it does talk about some of the more obviously made-up stories as such, but there’s a lot that we just don’t know.

That said, a lot of those stories are generally accepted as close to the truth; the later Romans certainly accepted many of them, which says a lot about how they wanted to be perceived. They’re interesting for other reasons.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a decent overview, this is certainly a good, readable one.

They’re all crazy


Dynasty is a story of a particularly prominent and dysfunctional family: the Julio-Claudian set of Roman Emperors. It includes Augustus (who started the empire), Claudius (subject to a relatively famous BBC series), and Nero (who fiddled while Rome burned), amongst others. They’re notable because they were the first emperors: Augustus managed the transition from republic to empire; Tiberius couldn’t live up to him; Caligula was either crazy or really spoiled; Claudius was underestimated; and Nero was complicated.

It was also a complicated time in the Roman state: how does a republic transition to an empire? Why? How did the prominence of women in the family (Livia, Agrippina the Younger) effect anything?

Dynasty is popular history (not scholarly), and both readable and enjoyable.

Everyone has their own filter


SPQR is and is not a history of Ancient Rome. It does not cover the entire 1200+ years of the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. It’s almost more of a media study of Ancient Rome. The fact is that there are few sources, and they’re difficult to verify against each other. In fact, before about 300 BCE, it’s all legend; there are no records of any kind. But we do have the stories, and how people tell the stories say a whole lot about the time they’re writing in.

Augustus burned all of Cleopatra’s records; we don’t get anything of her that didn’t pass through his filter. So what do we know of her? What does that tell us about Augustus, the first emperor of Rome? That’s the kind of history this is – it’s different than others and useful as a result. I thought about Rome differently.