TThe USP of the Roman Empire has always been its survival. The largest state to ever exist in Europe, the Roman Empire began with the conquest of its Italian neighbors in the last centuries BC and lasted, in one form or another, for over 1,000 years. The imperial monarchy established by Augustus at the turn of the millennium became a model many times imitated until the 20th century. The Slavic title of Tsar is a distant echo of Caesar. His Eagles soared over the empires of Austria, France and Mexico. The Roman bundles, an ax encased in a bundle of rods, were not only wielded by Mussolini and Hitler, but continue to adorn the United States House of Representatives and the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford.
My book Rome: the story of an empire, whose second edition has just been published, describes this long arc of the history of the Iron Age villages on the Tiber in Byzantium, besieged on the Bosporus while its Syrian and African possessions fell into the hands of the Arab armies. It also explores the echoes of the Roman Empire through the ages.
Here are some of the best volumes of a long and ever expanding literature.
1. The Story of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
This six-volume story (first published between 1776 and 1789) is now read more by Enlightenment scholars than by Roman historians, but no one has told the story of Rome in more style and taste. The famous opening in the ruins of the Roman Forum colors the whole book. The sense of antiquity reluctantly yielding to the following centuries remains a powerful image. Gibbon also knew that Byzantium was, and still was, Rome long after the Eternal City was sacked by barbarians (twice) and possessed by the popes. No word describes it better than epic.
2. The corrupted sea by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell
As different from Gibbon as it may be, aside from its scale and ambition. Published in 2000, it is the most brilliant and influential recent work on the ancient world. Based on a deep understanding of the Mediterranean environment, he builds an image of the ancient region as a world of distant but connected communities, many of which are precariously balanced on the brink of sustainability. City-states and empires play a secondary role here behind peasants and villages: wars and revolutions count less than crop failures and disease. It’s a compelling take on the underside of the empire, the foundation on which it was built. The discipline is still working on the implications of their arguments.
3. The Acts of the Apostles
For Rome, of course, we are fortunate to have eyewitness testimony. Perhaps none are more striking than the Acts, a sequel to the gospel story – the life after Jesus – played out in Judea, among the cities of the eastern provinces of the empire and finally in Rome itself. Acts has everything from summary Roman justice and civic riots to the perils of sea travel, and especially the odd combinations of identities that the various subjects of the empire have adopted.
4. The emperor in the Roman world through Fergus millar
Politically, everything revolved around the emperor. Fergus Millar’s masterpiece, like all great books, has inspired debate and criticism, but it has changed the way we understand the practice of Roman government. Millar focused on building a picture of what the emperors actually did, from their letters and laws and thousands of inscriptions and provincial registers, rather than from the sardonic stories of writers. senators such as Tacitus and Dion. It also gave an idea of the vastness of the empire and the slowness with which information circulated in its arteries. Emperor Millar struggled to keep track of what was going on. He was also most of the time in the background, reacting to crises rather than leading policy. It’s a difficult image to get out of your mind.
5. The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown
Another book that marks. Where others had seen Rome reach its peak at the turn of the second and third centuries, Brown begins there and tells the story of the new worlds that emerged between the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the Prophet Muhammad. The new cultures, religions and languages of late Antiquity have been fertile ground for recent research. When reviewing my own book, this was the period in which Roman history had changed the most in the past decade. Brown began the study of Late Antiquity, which now has his own journals, encyclopedias, and lectures, and he continued to lead from the front lines.
6. The Roman Triumph of Mary Beard
Rome was so often a model for later imitators that it is sometimes easy to forget how different it was from what followed. It is not the most famous of Beard’s many books on Rome, but it was instrumental in exploring the combination of savagery and ceremonial that followed Roman victories. It also described the extremely creative efforts of the Romans who reshaped their religion and their monumental city for each generation.
seven. Rome. An Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge
If you want to explore the remains of this city, there is no better guide than this. Claridge knows the modern city and its most recent archeology better than anyone writing in English. His book is a lucid and compact guide to the most ruinous and built monuments. I take it everywhere with me in town (and I used a few copies).
8. Roman presences of Catherine Edwards
While wandering in the Eternal City, it is impossible not to think of the many replicas of the Roman Empire. The subsequent reception of images from Rome has been a scholarly growth industry in recent years, but my favorite collection remains this one, which goes from Thomas Macaulay to TS Eliot and from London to Bombay.
9. Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
My first encounter with a modern reception from ancient Rome was here. It still makes me laugh as much as when I was 12 years old. My children learned to read on it. When I came to live in Paris as a graduate student, I realized all that this had to say about France after the Second World War and under the Fifth Republic as well. Pretty bright.
10. Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire by Judith Herrin
My final choice, for Gibbon was right that Roman history does not end with the sack of Rome, the deposition of the last emperor of the West, or even the Arab conquests. Herrin tells the thousand-year history of the Christian Roman Empire not through a narrative, but a series of bright and vivid vignettes. It is a pleasure to read.