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Monday, November 16, 2009

Ancient Rome. The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Simon Baker. BBC Books (2007)

A superb overview of the span of the Roman Empire from the collapse of the Republic to the last Emperor.The name of the last Roman Emperor, a sixteen year old who held a title without functional meaning was Romulus Augustulus. The last Roman Emperor was named in honour of the Romulus, for whom the city and empire were named and Augustus the first Roman Emperor. Simon Baker tells the extraordinary story of the Roman Empire with great skill, telling detail and a tremendous relish for the scale of the story.
Rome had an empire before it became the Roman Empire, it was the dominant force in the Mediterranean, and a proud Republic. Romans were proud of the fact that they had removed the tyranny of kingship and ruled themselves, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus-the Senate and the Roman People) was the essence of their political system. It mixed control by an elite with involvement by the free, male citizens of Rome. The expansion of the area controlled by the Republic, the creation of an empire unleashed the forces that lead to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Simon Baker examines the span of the empire by looking at the lives and times of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nero, Hadrian, Constantine and the final dismantling of the empire in the west. He looks at the slow transition from Republic to Empire, the way the position of Emperor developed and expanded and how finally the long success of the Empire was critical to its destruction. The writing is clear and the details are chosen with care, the political and economic context for each section are presented very well and an absorbing picture of the empire is developed. Given the lethal nature of the politics of the time and the relatively limited technology available the breath and stability of the Roman Empire are staggering. The extraordinary advantages of being part of it created an internal resilience that allowed it survive the multiple very bloody transitions of power from Emperor to Emperor.
Reading this book the continuing fascination that the Romans have exerted over subsequent generations is easy to understand, the mix of utterly alien and familiar is gripping and the sheer scale of their activities are truly epic. This is a great overview of an always relevant period.

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