Friday, September 16, 2011

Five worthy books on ancient Rome

Tom Holland's novels, most of which have a strong supernatural element, are set in various periods of history, ranging from ancient Egypt to 1880s London. He is also the author of highly praised works of history, including Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom.

With Daisy Banks at The Browser, Holland discussed five notable books on ancient Rome, including:
The Roman Triumph
by Mary Beard

Moving away from some of the great characters in Roman history, Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph is a radical re-examination of one of Rome’s ancient ceremonies.

I have chosen this because a lot of books on Ancient Rome, my own included, generally like to tell stories that take fragments of evidence and piece them together to make a coherent narrative. But there is also a deep pleasure in looking at some of the things that we think we know about Rome, or the myths that we know are not actually true, taking the mystery to pieces and examining the works and seeing what is there. This is what Mary Beard does in her book. She looks at a “triumph”, which is a parade through the streets of Rome by a victorious general, where he parades the loot and the captives that he has taken on his campaign and he is being cheered by the people of Rome. This is the stuff that informs virtually every sword and sandal epic which has been made, it is there is Asterix and it is there in our English word triumph, and she looks at it and says, “Are the ideas that we have of it true? Are the ideas of the Romans who wrote about it true?” It is like paint stripping – she strips layer after layer after layer away and the mystery and the excitement of the book is wondering what will be left at the end.

And what is left?

I think it would spoil the excitement because that is the point of the book!

But how does she manage to go back so far and genuinely know that what she is revealing is right rather than what there was before?

Well, you have to trust her. It is like in any detective novel you have to trust the detective. She is such a scholarly yet wittily sceptical guide that as you read it you feel that you can trust her to lead you through the labyrinth that she is exploring and point out what is true and what is not, so by the time you get to her ultimate conclusion you are perfectly content to take her word for it.

She is very good at giving a fresh view on Roman history.

Yes, she probably wouldn’t like to be described as this but she is almost the Miss Marple of Roman history because she sees to the heart of a mystery and how it works. She is a scholar and there is a feeling that scholarship is somehow intimidating or frightening or unapproachable, but it isn’t. At base it is about questioning and exploring things that anyone can be guided through. That is what she does so well. She is not dumbing down but she is making accessible what is incredibly interesting.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Page 99 Test: Mary Beard's The Roman Triumph.

Also see: Harry Sidebottom's five best books on Rome, Lindsey Davis's top ten Roman books, and Annabel Lyon's top ten books on the ancient world.

--Marshal Zeringue