I bring you a title of Pen & Sword in one of their popular series, which I think will interest many of you.
Emperors of Rome: The Monsters: From Tiberius to Theodora, AD 14–548 (History of Terror) by Paul Chrystal
As with everything else, there were good and bad Roman emperors. The good, like Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161) and Marcus Aurelius (161–180) were largely civilized and civilizing. The bad, on the other hand, were sometimes nothing less than monsters, exhibiting varying degrees of corruption, cruelty, depravity and insanity. It is a sobering thought that these ogres were responsible for governing the greatest civilization in the world, simultaneously terrorizing, brutalizing and massacring. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, Elagabalus, Septimius Severus, Diocletian, Maximinus Thrax, Justinian and Theodora all had more bad days than good; they are all covered in this book.
Their exploits have, of course, been well documented since classical times but much of the coverage can only be called gratuitous, sensationalist or tabloid. This book is different because it is based on primary sources and evidence – and attempts to balance out the shocking with any mitigating aspects in each of their lives. Many of our monsters have some redeeming factors and it is important that these are exposed if a true record of their lives is to be conveyed. The book also examines how each of the twelve has been treated for posterity in literature, theatre and film, and the lessons intended to be drawn from popular culture through the ages.
About the author:
Paul Chrystal was educated at the Universities of Hull and Southampton where he took degrees in Classics. He has worked in medical publishing for thirty-five years, but now combines this with writing features for national newspapers, as well as advising visitor attractions such as the National Trust’s ‘Goddards’, the home of Noel Terry, and ‘York’s Sweet Success’. He appears regularly on BBC local radio and on the BBC World Service. He is the author of fifty or so books on a wide range of subjects, including histories of Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, York and other northern places, social histories of tea and of chocolate; a history of confectionery in Yorkshire and various aspects of classical literature and history. He is married with three grown up children, and lives in York.
Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
This book is part of a series of historical books by the publishers called History of Terror, and I had been intrigued by several of the titles before, but this is the first one I have read (although I don’t think it will be the last). I am a keen reader of horror stories, but as is often the case, reality can be more incredible than fiction, and human beings’ imagination for evil seems to know no bounds. When such dark imaginings combine with positions of power, the results are the stuff of nightmares.
I was particularly attracted to this title because I was familiar with a few of the historical figures mentioned in the description (I loved I Claudius, both the books and the extraordinary TV series, and therefore was conversant with the Julio-Claudian Dynasty), but as mentioned in the description, when we deal with ancient history it is particularly challenging to know what information might have been based in fact and what in exaggeration that has often accumulated and multiplied over the years through retellings and embellishments. The author explains his method in the introduction, and his attempt at relying on sources contemporary to the events, as much as possible, and at comparing the information available in various sources to try and reach some consensus. Even the chroniclers most faithful to the truth were guilty of some political biases, but this is something the author notes, and he cautions readers against those peculiarities and leanings when he uses them as sources. He also reminds readers that the society of the Roman Empire was quite different to ours, and that their rules of conduct and what was acceptable and not are in no way comparable to those we live by nowadays. As an example, he mentions that their attitude towards sex and erotica was much more open and direct than ours, therefore it follows that if the sexual behaviour of an emperor was judged to be immoral and extreme at the time, we’re bound to be even more shocked by it than they were.
Chrystal includes a chapter on monstrous behaviour before Rome (featuring Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian Kings, Greek rulers [the Spartans are well represented and so is Alexander the Great]), then a chapter on monstrous behaviour during the Republic, and then, the pièce de résistance, the imperial monsters. He follows a chronological order, although only features those among the emperors who deserve special notice (there are quite a few, and both, men and women are included). The book is illustrated with black and white pictures of busts of the emperors, artworks depicting some of the scenes and episodes mentioned, maps, and there are also inserts of information (boxed out and separate from the rest of the text) providing added information, sometimes about some of the secondary characters who are not emperors or empresses but play important parts in the action and deserve to feature in their own right, and sometimes sharing useful nuggets (for example about Vesta and the Vestal Virgins) that help provide the necessary context to fully understand some of the events narrated. The book also includes three appendixes: a list of the Roman reigns, a simplified family tree of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and another one of the Flavian Dynasty; a list of further reading materials (including the contemporary sources the author relied on, but also recent historical texts for those interested in exploring the topic further); and an index.
The author goes to pains to try to be as fair as possible to the historical figures featured, sharing contrasting views —he mentions the different versions of the Great Fire of Rome (was Nero guilty or not), and querying if Caligula was truly responsible for Tiberius’s death (in both cases it seems likely they had something to do with the events)— and highlighting how even the more ruthless among them might have made some positive contributions (like the empress Theodora, who seems to have been morally suspect and cruel but did much to improve the position of women in Rome and changed the laws to grant them some rights), however hard this can be in some cases. Considering this is a fairly short book (128 pages including illustrations, appendices and index), I learned a lot, not only about the terrible deeds of the emperors of Rome, but also about the mores and customs of the Roman society of the time. Not all the content is of a monstrous nature; for example, I was amused to learn about the beauty tricks of Agrippina (antiwrinkle lotion and all) and fascinated by the idea of damnatio memoriae, whereby if somebody’s behaviour was abhorrent, future rulers might decide that he or she should be totally erased from public memory by law (evidently not a totally effective strategy, but an interesting take on punishment and public fame).
This is a great introduction to the darkest figures from the Roman Empire, and although it is unlikely to provide new information to people who are already well-read and keen on the history of the period —as by its own breadth and length it does not go into too many details— its variety and easy-to-read style will ensure that the casual reader remains engaged, and anybody who reads it is likely to want to know more about the period and about some of the characters included. As is to be expected, the book features accounts of cruelty and violence of all kinds and also of extreme sexual practices, and although it is not extremely graphic or descriptive, the brief accounts are horrifying in their own right. Therefore, this is not recommended to readers who prefer to avoid strong scenes, especially because the fact that those are historical events and not fiction make them even more poignant and terrifying. This book reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we should never forget the extremes human beings are capable of and need to make sure that we have means to keep them on check.
Thanks to the author, Rosie, and the team at Pen & Sword, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, and be good!